Tag Archive for: Gastropub

We are in the dog-friendly ‘No Man’s Land’ between restaurant and pubby bit. If I wanted, I could cross to an actual bar with hand pumps and order a pint of cask ale brewed under a mile away in an old Dales laithe (hay barn). Instead I sip my 125ml measure (I’m driving) of Swartland Chenin Blanc and contemplate the tranche of turbot on my plate. It has come from Cornwall, as I also expect have the squares of seared cuttlefish that book-end this exquisite main. Perigord supplied the wafers of black truffle; the provenance of the fermented turnip that contributes so much to the ensemble remains a mystery. 

We are eating Michelin at The Angel at Hetton five miles from Skipton. Its chef/patron Michael Wignall has been a serial star holder since winning his first in 1993 at The Burlington, Devonshire Arms just down the road. After quitting two-star Gidleigh Park in Devon in 2018 the plan has been to put The Angel back on the culinary map. Touted as the first gastropub, its best years – which we were part of as regular customers – were long past.

Our first visit to Angel Mark II was exactly a year ago on a glorious Dales summer day, only lockdown restrictions still in place muting our excitement at the transformation. Since when it has retained its star and been named No.4 (two places behind The Parkers Arms across the Lancashire Border) in the Estrella Damm Top 50 UK Gastropubs list. More recently it came in at No.12 in their NRA Top 50 Restaurants and, with The Parkers down at 44, romped home as that list’s ‘Top Gastropub’. The nod there was to its ‘high end’ food. In its 90s heyday under Dennis Watkins there was muttering  that pilgrimages to sample its seafood specials and interesting wine list ruined it for the locals.

Yet it did retains an old Dales pub feel. Now with its spacious, almost Scandi makeover that’s not the case. 

Would I ever pop in while passing for a pint of that Dark Horse Pale Ale? Probably not. Would I once again drive the 60 mile round trip to make the agonising choice between a la carte (£85)  and tasting menu (£95 at lunch)? Yes, I’m already planning my next booking. The temptation is to do an evening and stay over in one of their 15 en suite rooms.

Whatever, The Angel unusually opens Mondays, happily accepts dogs (that ‘no man’s land’ has a hugely comfortable corner booth) and who needs beer when the food is this outstanding?

Our chihuahua Captain Smidge’s last Michelin meal was at Yynshir, UK’s newly anointed No.1 restaurant. Under our table he snoozed through a four hour, 30 course plus, spice-driven tasting menu with deafening house music, mirror balls, fire pits and leathern-aproned disciples serving on. Check out my report on this astonishing place.

This time, in a more relaxed setting, the hound is more up for it, accepting his hand-fed tithe of sourdough, rabbit, confit chicken and Yorkshire spring lamb, off the a la carte this time. Most of this comes from my wife’s order choice. Before the turbot I have crab, razor clam, buttermilk, Oscietra caviar, green strawberries and a Nigiri topped with crab claw meat. Definitely not Smidge’s kettle of fish. 

Contender for prettiest dish is my wife’s intricate starter of Loire rabbit, loin and tiny best end chops, linseed and garden peas, but then her pudding of English cherry with pistachio and a woodruff custard is a looker, too, with equally intense flavours to match. Ditch any pub pretensions, The Angel is one of our great, heavenly places to eat. Certainly in God’s Own Country.

The Angel at Hetton, Back Lane, Hetton, Skipton BD23 6LT.

Such an old chestnut that one about ‘policemen are getting younger’. Stats say different and anyway the phrase is a reflection of our own mortality creeping up on us. Chefs, now that’s another matter. Especially when they’ve been fast-tracked by a shrewd mentor. Step forward Tom Kerridge and Connor Black. The first is a ubiquitous figure across the English food and drink scene, his latest telegenic showcase judging on the revamped Great British Menu; the second, a 25-year-old who first entered the Kerridge orbit aged just 15, has just made the leap forward to Head Chef at The Bull & Bear, in Manchester’s Stock Exchange Hotel.

What immediately appeals on dipping into Connor’ debut menu is the sense that he is very much his own man. From the start, in the summer of 2019, the northern outpost of the Kerridge has borne the big man’s stamp. Less the standard of food (at a price) that brought him two Michelin stars at The Hand and Flowers in Marlow; more the accomplished pub food you’ll find at his second operation in that town, The Coach.

Connor worked his way up to be sous-chef at The Hand before becoming Head Chef of The Shed, that posh pub’s intimate 10-cover private dining room. His meteoric rise stated much earlier. At 13 he was working part-time in kitchens on the Isle of Wight; at 15 he arrived at the Hand and Flowers for work experience and stayed; two years later he was named Hospitality Guild Apprentice of the Year. All the while contributing to menu development. A spell away working on the continent contributed to his development.

So what does all this bring to the plate in Manchester? A smaller menu, like so many places post-pandemic, yes, but the dishes are noticeably less hearty, though following the Kerridge “refined pub grub” template.

Definitely a good thing in these eyes as I accept starter advice and sample  Roasted Hand Dived Orkney Scallop with Pickled Crown Prince Pumpkin and Smoked Butter Sauce (£24.50) It’s exquisite. Only 60 of these very superior scallops are delivered each week and the storms have stymied even that until, luckily the day of my lunch. A ‘table snack’ of Cheddar Cheese Scones with Marmite Butter is less successful. Dry scones and I’d forgotten how Marmite Marmite is.

 A pre-opening journo jolly to Marlow showed me how seriously the Kerridge team sources. Witness this again with my main Dry Aged Udale Duck Breast off the rotisserie with Caramelised Endive, Rhubarb and Garlic Sausage ‘Cassoulet’ (£34). Up to 40 days in Udale’s Himalayan Salt Ageing Chamber intensifies the flavour of an already benchmark Creedy Carver duck. But the dish is enhanced by the subtle bittersweet/sharp flavours Connor brings to the accompaniments.

Belly of Blythburgh Pork with Marmite Glazed Hasselback Artichoke, Smoked Hazelnuts and Pear Ketchup (£34) and Roast Cornish Cod with Sweet Garlic Puree, Lemon Braised Leeks, Shiitake and Mushroom Consommé (£33.50) also take the eye.

Rhubarb, bang in season, reappears in my retro trifle. All the puddings are £11.50, ranging from Warm Baked Eccles Cake with Lancashire Black Bomb Cheese to a Peanut Butter Crème Brûlée with Raspberry Jelly and Banana Yoghurt Sorbet.

The trading floor of the Grade II listed former Stock Exchange, is as imposing as ever, the large  open kitchen built to cater for a substantial number of covers. Meshed into the revamped B&B regime is a new Head of Food and Beverage, Matthew Griffin, who has previously worked under Jason Atherton. And Group Exec Chef the vastly experienced Warren Geraghty is regularly up from London. As a potential safety net? Will any of this phase young Connor? I doubt it.

The Bull & Bear, Stock Exchange Hotel, 4 Norfolk St, Manchester M2 1DW. 0161 470 902.

A wet Wednesday morning in Mitton, Lancashire and I am admiring a tub of saffron milkcaps. Or to give this delectable wild mushroom its even more exotic Latin tag: Lactarius deliciosus. Not to be confused with the Woolly Milkcap (Lactarius torminosus), which is poisonous.

I ask the mycophile (edible mushroom gather) I’ve just met, Matt Rivers, if he every gets jittery about fungi identifications. There have been moments, he admits. He works a carefully chosen woodland patch to the east of Blackburn. He’d love to locate morels, a valuable restaurant staple, but so far no luck.

Matt is here at The Three Fishes, groundbreaking gastropub being brought back from the dead, because he has done business before with its chef/patron Nigel Haworth. In his days fronting Michelin-starred Northcote down the road Nigel – along with arch-rival Paul Heathcote – forged the gastronomic reputation of the Ribble Valley. 

But it was the collection of pubs, trading under the name Ribble Valley Inns, that spread the image of a terroir rich in raw materials and artisan providers. The Three Fishes was the first of these food-centric inns, back in 2004. There were five in total across the North West by the time RVI was bought by big bucks chain Brunning & Price in 2018. Nigel admits the final venture down into deepest Cheshire had been a step too far.

The new owners, with a strong presence in that county, chose not to add the Nag’s Head, Haughton to their 62-strong pub portfolio. Out of the four they did purchase Three Fishes was shut down within year. Bizarrely B&P already owned The Aspinall Arms a third of a mile away. Big money had been lavished on its refurb and consequently the Fishes languished in its shadow.

Nigel and his young staff have taken possession of the shiny new kitchen in the build up to November 12

All this is in the past, as is Nigel Haworth’s involvement with Northcote, now owned by the group behind London’s Stafford Hotel and Norma restaurant (read my review). In an act of of fate his current resurgence stems from a chance meeting at his beloved Obsession chef festival (the last one held, in 2020). Martin Aspinall’s family have been Ribble Valley grandees for centuries and he agreed to go 50:50 to fund The Three Fishes rebirth. 

As we negotiate a hectic construction work in progress Nigel tells me: “It was always in the back of my mind that I’d go back, though even I didn’t realise what a sorry state the building was in. New electrics, windows, a new kitchen and so much more, but we are getting there.”

The reopening was scheduled for the end of October but after “unexpected hurdles” the official opening date has now shifted to Wednesday November 17. Such is the popularity of Haworth and the Fishes’ reputation they have already been inundated with enquiries. Christmas should be sold out.

So what should returning devotees and a new generation of customers expect? “An offering somewhere between gastropub and fine dining with an emphasis on farm to fork sustainability,  new beginning” says Nigel.

Back in the day the pub’s walls were festooned with arty monochrome images of its suppliers, moody poses with pigs or cabbages and there was a map charting North West suppliers. Many of these veteran supporters are rallying to the new venture but Nigel’s new focus is growing on site with an acre of veg plot, a 30m x 10m poly tunnel and an emphasis on permaculture. “We’ll be composting all our own waste, aiming eventually at zero waste. For long term we are creating our own orchard, too. Giving back to the land. We are not looking back, we are looking forward.”

The food offering will concentrate on four course seasonal set menus – £50 at lunch, £65 in the evening. Mains will be in the £20-£30 bracket, puddings around an £8 price point. There will be a selection of 60 wines and beers will be local. A 16-capacity private dining room, with baronial sliding door symbolises the aspiration to transcend the old Fishes, which occasionally felt formulaic and canteen-like (in my opinion) despite the quality of the food.

The legendary Haworth hotpot, star of the BBC’s Great British Menu that has even been an upmarket ready meal

Lancashire hotpot is the dish synonymous with Nigel Haworth after his refined version, using local Lonk lamb, went all the way to the Banquet in Great British Menu a decade ago. Would it feature on the new Three Fishes Menu? I forgot to ask in the makeover tumult. Thanks to Nigel for mailing me a specimen menu later. No sign of the hotpot, but there’s grilled turbot, roasted red leg partridge and a fascinating Herdwick lamb combo – loin, liver, sticky belly, turnip gratin and pat choi. The whole menu goes up on the website by midday on Sunday, October 31 when bookings go live.

Behind schedule, having just lost a key member of his kitchen brigade, with the price of that favoured Herdwick lamb going through the roof, yet you sense it is not just The Three Fishes that is being reinvigorated. “Why am I doing this? Well, I just love to cook, that’s what I do.”

There’s a fascinating interview in hospitality bible The Staff Canteen, where chef/patron Steven Smith explains how he has adapted The Freemasons at Wiswell for these difficult staffing times. 

We hadn’t read it when we rolled up for lunch at this exemplary gastropub on the fringes of the Ribble Valley. In retrospect it gives a valuable insight into our experience – which was very rewarding. Step forward the Wild Boar Bolognese, Hand Rolled Beetroot Rigatoni, Pickled Walnuts, Aged Parmesan that had me squealing with excitement.

A complimentary Isle of Wight Tomato Tea with a herby whipped curd cone was a delight

It’s a new starter on the remarkable value set lunch (£22 for two courses, £27 for three, also available early evening). ‘Cutting your cloth’ isn’t usually a benchmark for improvement but on the lunch evidence a serious kitchen rethink has paid off.

Steven Smith has adapted his regime to make the kitchen run more smoothly and help his staff’s well-being

He explains in the article: “We always were very mise en place heavy and then service was kept smooth, crisp and clean. but now we have more staff working Monday to Friday doing preparation than we have staff doing Saturday Sundays actually cooking.”

Not only has this helped them redress staffing issues… “We’re also cooking better than we ever have, we’ve slimmed down the menu, we’ve really thought about simplifying a lot of dishes and it’s made the food better.

“The food still has the same Freemasons touch and feel, we haven’t turned away from that, we’re still using all the same sauces we’ve always used and the concept of the dishes is the same, we’ve just refined it and taken a lot of stuff off the plate that didn’t need to be there.”

You’d have to road test the a la carte to properly confirm this. Certainly in the past Steven has seemed to be driven by Michelin aspirations and it has seemed unfair that many of his peers below the Freemasons in the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs list have secured a star. 

To celebrate 10 years at Wiswell, in summer 2019 Smith took the place up a notch with a big investment. Four luxury bedrooms were attached plus a state of the art kitchen as the hub of a new dining experience called ‘Mr Smith’s’… Here’s my glowing report on our stay for Manchester Confidential.

Our return is more back to basics, but what basics. A running thread through the meal is the vivid presence of in-season peas and broad beans. ‘Summer greens’ feature in a velouté starter and a complimentary Isle of Wight Tomato Tea (with its cute cones of whipped curd and herbs). Equally chlorophyll-rich are the simple accompaniments to a roast salmon loin – samphire, dill and an exquisite green forager’s sauce.

French style peas (not mushy) form a base with a mint sauce for my wife’s Suet Pudding with an unctuous filling of Herdwick Lamb Shoulder, while my rival main dunks Loin of Whitby Cod in a sharp vegetable and herb nage that’s a whole intense harvest of those peas and broad beans. No greens were apparent in that debutant Wild Boar, but it was the true star of the show. 

This half portion of chocolate device was enough – it was decadently rich

We stuck with the two courses but then shared a hard-to-resist Dark Chocolate Delice (£12.95) from the a la carte, a blackcurrant sorbet and cherries giving it a deconstructed Black Forest feel.

The Freemasons Menu, a model of deconstruction in it own right? We like it.

Freemasons at Wiswell, 8 Vicarage Fold, Wiswell, nr Clitheroe, BB7 9DF. 01254 822218.

Exciting openings have not been plentiful of late. Now we have one. Such is the allure of the re-born Black Friar, reopening on Tuesday, July 27, not even the stormy weather heading our way can zap the al fresco vibe generated by its glorious garden. The short hot summer was at its peak when we got our sneak preview. The rest of the world will inevitably follow.

Hurtling along Trinity Way, you’d be hard pressed to twig the large terrace behind its palisade; ditto the glass-fronted restaurant annexe seamlessly attached to the Victorian sandstone and brick pub, restored to the tune of £1.4m.

Black Friar – Salford heritage among the new build

For two decades, after a devastating fire, it stood desolate on the corner with Blackfriars Street. Not quite an eyesore – if you were a fan of Boddingtons Bitter. As the reputation of the ‘Cream of Manchester’ turned sour under successive corporate owners the prominent two bees logo decked out in yellow and black on the end of the building was a lachrymose reminder of the straw-coloured, fragrantly hoppy nectar the beer once was. 

This may be apocryphal but I’m told Boddies cask was so popular in the Seventies the Black Friar stocked no keg beer or lager. That was an old school Salford boozer; in its latest incarnation it reflects a new apartment block generation colonising the former industrial wasteland. Food-oriented, most definitely. Developers Salboy originally intended it to be a vehicle for star chef Aiden Byrne, but he pulled out as the pandemic struck; in his place is another ex-20 Stories talent, Ben Chaplin.

Still it plugs its pub credentials, honouring the brewery that once belched malt fumes over Strangeways by offering the keg Boddies at £4.50 a pint. A bland brand, it’s brewed by Inbev in Samlesbury; I’d veer towards the excellent wine list instead. 

The trad pub sign also name checks Boddingtons. It features a jolly friar, given a shaggy dog back story on the website (and a chance to proclaim the pub’s Resurrection, thankfully without appropriating the Stone Roses). 

I’d hoped the fashion for this kind of naff narrative self-validation had passed, but hey it’s just a quibble. Let us praise. The Black Friar is a holy exceptional addition to the Manchester/Salford food and drink scene. The first Salford gastropub proper since the demise of Robert Owen Brown’s remarkable Mark Addy.

What immediately impressed on that embryonic lunchtime visit was the quality of service  mustered from a young crew by exuberant Lebanese general manager Remi Khodr. From the immediate water bowl for our chihuahua, Captain Smidge, to the limoncello proffered when our puddings were slightly delayed the experience was a delight.

Probably because Smidge was with us we were seated at a garden table. No hardship but the restaurant proper looked the stylish business. An open kitchen, an abundance of greenery, black and white tiles, marble table tops, all filled with light. 

.A section of the garden – Boddingtons Corner – can be hired for private events, as can the panelled, drawing room-like Sanctuary on the pub’s first floor.

Totally gratuitous image of the Blackfriar. Few pub interiors can match its art nouveau magnificence

As many original features as possible have been retained but alas the shell was vandalised during the lost years. Compare and contrast its namesake in London, the Blackfriar, a masterpiece of art nouveau don by the Thames, built on the site of a real priory. It did serve Boddingtons in its heyday; food has never been a priority.

Under head chef Chaplin it definitely is here. There is to be an upmarket ‘pub food’ menu but we got to sample the ‘restaurant’ offering. Eventually there’ll be a chef’s table on the Black Friar’s second floor. You can see the ambition in what’s on offer already. I have never encountered such an elaborate, deconstructed tiramisu. No wonder it took time to emerge. A honeycomb and gold leaf wow. Equally satisfying was a 72 per cent Valrhona chocolate fondant with peanut butter ice cream across the table.

A starter of juniper-cured ‘au point’ Creedy carver duck was stunning, served with sweet roast cherries and a pickled kohlrabi salad. My Cornish boudin, in contrast struck a drab note, despite the best efforts of basil jelly and some interesting smoked dehydrated watermelon. Little roundels of seafood sausage betrayed hardly a hint of crab.

Main prices are heading premium-wards. £28 for roast Cumbrian rack of lamb, but all the Mediterranean elements of the dish were in harmony – glazed baby aubergine, kalamata olive and confit tomato jus. Smidge loved his substantial tithe.

Perhaps there was too much going on in our other main, a couple of quid more. Wallowing in a polite ‘bouillabaisse’ with a scattering of mussels was a dense seared monkfish fillet. Giving it a flouncy 20 Stories feel was a small flotilla of nasturtium leaves. A mound of squid ink rouille was excessive and would have been unbalancing if I hadn’t shoved half to the side. No matter, this is food worth making the trek for. 

Would I treat it as a pub to drop in for a pint? Doubt it. That’s what The Eagle around the corner is for. And yet… that garden. That first kiss of ‘freedom’. I know how Adam felt. Before the Fall, that eternal lockdown.

The Black Friar, Blackfriars Road, Salford M3 7DH. 0161 667 9555.