WHO’S benefiting most from this bold era of boundary-pushing, forage-friendly, stripped to the roots British cooking? The young tyros in the kitchen making it happen? The foodie customer prepared to brave…
• any amount of raw and pickled challenges?
• the Russian Roulette of natural wine?
• beardy culinary evangelists curating you through menus that read like haiku?
No, it has to be the artisan potters. They who craft the vessels that bear the offerings of the Nordic inspired wizards of the open kitchen.
I don’t even mind that, like the dreaded slate and wood, the trend for rustic glazed receptacles is spreading down the food chain. A rather good new city centre bistro has ordered bowls from an indie Salford potter whose lovely wares they came upon at Adam Reid at The French. Let’s hope the food lives up to the fired clay.
Which bring us by a roundabout route (like the one that finally got me to Moor Hall in the potato flatlands outside Ormskirk) to this new restaurant with rooms venture from Mark Birchall, like Reid a protege of Simon Rogan.
Chef Birchall’s ceramics are second to none. I am captivated by their swirl and graininess as they provide the setting for each dish of the £95 a head eight course tasting menu, swollen by its four precursor nibbles and mid-meal refreshers.
Captivated is my reaction to the entire Moor Hall experience. I never thought that in the North in my lifetime Rogan’s flagship L’Enclume would be matched for its attention to detail. Well it has… and some. Front of house is ex-Sat Bains, Cartmel provides other staff attuned to this level and Alex Freguin, head sommelier from Nice, is every oenophile’s new best buddy.
But above all there is the food. Birchall is a taciturn man who lets it speak for him. On the evidence of his first Moor Hall menus you just wonder if it also spoke for Simon Rogan on occasions.
It’s kitchen lore that L’Enclume’s signature chopped raw ribeye of ox in coal oil was forged in the imagination of Birchall. You know, the dish that prompted Giles Coren famously to declare: “Id walk to Manchester barefoot in the rain for one more mouthful.”
Well, I’d hop over Parbold Hill in my socks to eat the latest incarnation any time with its genius scattering of chocolate crumbs. The whole dish is deservedly my lead picture, pocks of vivid yellow mustard, barbecued celeriac and those provocative cubelets of 60 day aged beef.
The beef appears quite early in the main menu after two unfamiliar dishes that surprise and delight – first carrots baked in sharp essence of sea buckthorn (gathered on Southport beaches, chef tells us later) and topped with crumbs of Doddington cheese; then the even odder coupling of brown and white crab meat and a thin but intense turnip broth, which also hosts sunflower seeds and asparagus sprue. I confess by now my concentration on the artisan ceramics has shifted.
It’s only relative in this succession of small marvels but grilled langoustine, smoked bone marrow and cucumber fails to deliver similar complexity of flavours.
Turbot to the rescue. King of fish cooked on the bone, the pinkish fingers of flesh almost skatelike, peeking through a foamy, garlicky mussel cream, salsify and soft sea veg supplying contrasting textures to this suave triumph.
For what must translate as ‘your slightly more substantial main’ there’s a choice between Herdwick lamb loin and Westmorland chicken (you can take the man out of Cumbria but…). We chose lamb, so prettily garnished with nasturtium leaves, a small tranche of dauphinoise accompanying. Sometimes after such a sensorily demanding array of dishes artful simplicity works. And it does here.
A cheese course is an extra charge but is irresistible here, sourced from both Neal’s Yard and Settle’s remarkable Courtyard Dairy, the latter suppliers to L’Enclume, Forest Side, the White Swan at Fence and even, under the new Mary-Ellen McTague regime, Manchester Art Gallery Cafe.
The cheese lives in a glorious dedicated room, offering just the right conditions. We penetrated this sanctum de fromage to make our selection, succumbing to a shot of 10-year-old Tawny to accompany.
Puddings were as remarkable as everything that went before, but the star was the final act, ‘Honey Beer’, which sounds simple but is not. I hope I get this right. A pastry basket containing marigold sorbet and honey beer ‘popcorn’ rocks sits on a compression of baked Bramley, circled by blobs of apple puree infused with marigold.
So a wonderful tasting menu that will live long in the memory, a Michelin super destination in the making and we were there at the start.
No we didn’t stay in one of the seven ultra-lavish bedrooms that can only fortify its stellar claims (witness fast-tracked Forest Side) or (it was chucking it down) inspect the awesome walled kitchen garden that is a key element, along with its own dairy, in the pipeline.
Nor, bar a palate-cleansing elderflower, apple and marigold tonic in the panelled sitting room before our meal did we get a real feel for the much manicured Jacobean gentry house itself.
Our time was spent in the contemporary bolt-on 50-cover dining room, all porcelain floors and ground to ceiling glass walls looking across to the lake,the kitchen open plan, everything purring along smoothly. Here is the culinary alchemy in action that is going to make Mark Birchall properly famous.
I didn’t mention the four preliminary dishes he served us. I’ve kept the best to the end. Each was as ravishing as the bowls they came in. They get their own mini-gallery. A beautiful composition of smoked curd, potato, fermented garlic and edible flowers; the fresh bite of raw mackerel, radish, purslane; oyster, cured ham, dill, buttermilk, like licking a rock pool; and for starters black pudding and pickled apple in two ‘dark grey parcels’ matched by the grainy grey of the hay-filled lidded stone vessels they are served in. It could be the bizarre work of an extra-terrestrial potter. I rest my case.
Moor Hall Restaurant with Rooms, Prescot Road, Ormskirk L39 6RT. 01695 572511. The experience gets a maximum five score. If I could I'd give it six.