When I look back on years of reviewing there’s a special roster of restaurants where I got there first. And reassuringly where I raved others followed. No delusions. Places really prospered after my initial sounding was endorsed by fellow critics with a much higher profile. Which brings me to The White Swan at Fence. A slightly slower burner after I awarded it 16/20 back in 2015, the food eulogy undermined by the basic village pub in transition ambience. Neither food nor pub enhanced by a wrong setting on my Canon Power Shot G15. Fuzzy! Shamefacedly, my incognito cover blown, I had to ask chef Tom Parker, at peak Saturday service time, if I could re-shoot certain dishes on the pass.
Tom was the reason I’d hurtled up the A6068 Padiham bypass to the strung-out commuter hamlet of Fence. A real talent setting up in the most unlikely of places – the only Timothy Taylor tied house in Lancashire. Formerly dubbed ‘The Mucky Duck’.
My chef friend, Mike Jennings (Grenache at Walkden/later WOOD), had rung me to recommend his former Northcote oppo, who started there at 16, five years later winning UK Young Chef of the Year.
Northcote has held a Michelin star for over a quarter of a century; the Swan gained its own in 2018, three years after my first visit, and has kept it since. The award was a surprise to those fixated on more gussied up establishments but, of course, the consistent brilliance of the food counted most.
That revered status has been confirmed this week by the resurgent Good Food Guide, now a purely digital operation, yet retaining its authority. Strong on expert reader recommendations, it rates UK restaurants across four categories, Good, Very Good, Exceptional and World Class. Only three form the latter pantheon – L’Enclume, Ynyshir and Moor Hall, with all of which I am very familiar. 34 further places make the Exceptional list, including The White Swan at Fence.
According to The GFG: “Exceptional equals cooking that has reached the pinnacle of achievement, making it a highly memorable experience for the diner. The whole restaurant will be operating at the highest level: not only perfect dishes, showing faultless technique at every service, but also superb service, a high level of comfort, and a warm, welcoming atmosphere. These are the best places to eat in the country.”
Great company for the White Swan. That elite bunch includes the likes of A. Wong, Claude Bosi at Bibendum, Hjem, Inver. Outlaw’s Nest, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Restaurant Story, The Raby Hunt and The Sportsman.
It all leaves me feeling in the right place at the right time again. Read my review of Yynshir where, between booking and staying, it won its second Michelin star and was named the UK’s number one restaurant.
Cue last Saturday, when I booked a Swan lunch for myself and Captain Smidge, the gourmet chihuahua, en route checking the photo settings on my iPhone 13 were spot on. The five course lunch is £55 a head on Saturdays, compared with £45 Tuesday-Friday. Each prix fixe will rise by a tenner from December 1 (for obvious economic logistical reasons). Our standard set dinner will increase to £80 per head Tuesday to Saturday.
At my table opposite the Landlord and Boltmaker cask pumps Gareth Ostick (co-owner with his wife Laura and Tom) tells me that the decision to discard the several-choice a la carte post lockdowns has been a success beyond the obvious cutting down of possible food waste. It has also re-energised chef Tom, giving him the opportunity to roll with what’s fresh on the market. And, of course, in any Michelin destination, added surprises are quintessential.
Here the amuse bouches cluster across the table (no tablecloths and, all you old school Michelin tickers, don’t count on cloches). A tomato consommé topped with intense whipped basil and smoked bacon speckles comes in a prawn cocktail style goblet. With a large pebble of sourdough there’s a choice of butter, Leagram’s organic sheep’s curd, or their signature black pea hummus, which is as ‘Lanky umami’ as ever. Oh, nearly forgot a game liver parfait ‘tart’ coated in hazelnut. I’m driving, so my aim is to make my pint of Taylor’s last but already the glass is half empty, half full. Such a shame, though, not to explore the wine list, these days supplied by the excellent Miles Corish and a vast improvement on that 2015 selection.
Bread aside, Captain Smidge has to wait to the third course of herb-fed chicken to be rewarded with his tythe. It comes with hen of the woods and an old school yet light mushroom sauce with madeira and thyme. It cries out for a creamy Chardonnay, but I stay firm.
Before the fowl there is a cute little Burford Brown egg yolk, under fried potato discs dressed with herring roe and dill, giving it a Scandi brunch feel. Then, more excitingly, in a red prawn curry foam a substantial Skye scallop topped with its own coral in the lightest of tempura batters. Masterful.
Honey truffle, mascarpone, pears and verjus is a playful palate cleanser before this accomplished kitchen unveils a triumph of soufflé technique, using Valrhona chocolate. With it a darker hot chocolate sauce and a stem ginger ice cream. All as pretty as a picture in my photos. Mostly.
The White Swan at Fence, 300 Wheatley Lane Road, Fence, Burnley BB12 9QA.