Moor Hall Restaurant and Rooms, Ormskirk

The design of Moor Hall felt like a collection of our favourite restaurants. The walk from the carpark to the restaurant through the immaculately turned-out garden lined with vegetables and herbs and flowers could easily have been the vast grounds behind The Wild Rabbit. Inside, the large polished kitchen and dining room make use of glass walls to connect it to its environment in the same way that Azurmendi do, whilst the view has a similar serenity to that found in the middle-of-bloody-nowhere at Ynyshir. It’s like they sat down with a blank page and asked what it would take to make the perfect experience, probably laughed at all of the zeros on the page, and then done it anyway. And there is nothing wrong with that.

In fact there is nothing wrong with any of Moor Hall. On the contrary; it is a restaurant defined by a high level of consistency that may explain the two Michelin stars in the three years it has been open, along with its present ranking of numero uno in Restaurant magazine. Every step, from the email asking us to arrive early, to the first courses in the bar, to the tour of the kitchen where the third course was served, lunch, and the small matter of a cheese room (yes, you have read that correctly), felt tightly orchestrated. A lot of thought has gone into every process, but then you would expect this from a Roux scholar who did a stint at Cellar Del Can Roca in between his tenures as head chef at L’Enclume.

We start with charcuterie in the bar, made in-house and some of the best I have ever eaten. Then a parcel of black pudding with a little gooseberry, washed down with a well made martini. Then into the kitchen for smoked eel and fermented wild garlic in a basket of fried potato which was just knockout good. Then to the table for bread with a conventional butter and another a vivid green, blended with parsley and lovage. Three spots each dishing out some very good bits of food.

The following lunch happens at a speed so precise I expect each plate is fitted with a pacemaker. Dish comes, wine is topped up, dish gets eaten, wine gets topped-up, wait seven minutes and dish arrives. Repeat. We get baked carrots with sea buckthorn and Doddington (a hard cheese a little like parmesan), that shows great balance and restraint, and a beetroot dish lifted with a little frozen horseradish and has the bite of quinoa for texture. I usually dislike beetroots; this has me pilfering from Claire’s plate when she’s not looking.

I’ve seen a rendition of the tartare dish before. It allegedly stems from Cellar Del Can Roca and found it’s way back to Cartmel where it’s become something of a signature. Eight years ago, when I first tried it, the idea of charcoal oil to make the raw beef taste cooked was groundbreaking. Now everyone is doing it. This version, with 80 day old beef, barbecued celeriac, mustard, and perfect teeny rings of pickled shallot, seems like the work of a man who has mastered his craft. It’s perfect. A dish with crab and turnip is all about the root vegetable, with the crab fighting for attention. I want to say that crab and turnip is a perfect partnership but I can’t. What I can say is that the turnip broth seasoned with soy is without question the best use for a turnip you will ever come across.

Just one month in, I can absolutely guarantee that the Guinea hen main will be in my top ten dishes of the year. The juicy square of meat with crisp fatty skin, the ragu of offal underneath a cloak of kohlrabi with kale sandwiched between that had been cooked in ham fat. The silkiest of  jerusalem artichoke puree flecked with floral notes, the maggot-like Japanese artichokes which are buttery and nutty, hen of the wood mushrooms, and a jus so clear it could easily have been a reduced consome. That jus got me into trouble with Claire, chasing away at the last of it with my index finger to be told that this isn’t how to behave in places like this. I’ll take the slap on the wrist. There is nothing that could make this dish better. It is an absolute stunner.

We finish on a couple of desserts and the small matter of a trip to a cheese room. First up is a gingerbread ice cream and candied root vegetables under a flurry of pastry sticks, which is grown-up and downright delicious, followed by apples both as a mousse and caramelised terrine. The dish was full of clean herbaceaus notes with birch syrup and woodruff, decorated with the prettiest shards of caramel leaves. Another winner. Then the cheese room, which by now you may have noticed I am a little excited about. Seventeen British cheeses and one from Ireland, all immaculately stored. We chose six between two, served up with quince, red onion chutney, bread, and crackers. Order more wine. My work here is done.

The last time I saw Mark Birchall he was peering out of a gap in the service entrance to the kitchen of L’Enclume, looking pensive. Here, as we are among the last to finish up at lunch he is in a relaxed mood, seemingly helping front of house prepare for that evening’s dinner service. He asks how lunch was. “Pretty much perfect” I reply. Looking back the bill just shy of £300 seems a relative bargain, given the cocktails, the wine, the lunch, and the cheese. Moor Hall is a special restaurant, fully deserving of all the accolades bestowed over such a short period of time.


Wreckfish, Liverpool

Kickstarter as a business model is very effective. It cuts out the banks and those pesky interest rates. It is free and ultra effective PR. Somewhat more importantly, and often overlooked, it allows the prospective restauranteur to gauge how welcome you are. Nothing quite says ‘open me’ like a city full of people willing to pay in advance for their dinner. Make this vast amount of money in a short period of time and you not only have a shiny new restauarant, but one that has the interest of the country, begging to know what the secret to success is. Step forward Gary Usher; belligerent, shouty, sweary chef patron of the Elite Bistro group. I’ve been to a few of these now, so I can tell you that the key to success is twofold: first make the kind of neighbourhood restaurant that has menus where choice is impossible at a price that most people can afford. Secondly, make as much noise as possible online. Slag TripAdvisor and those who post on it, call someone a cunt, maybe even turn up at a butchers for a scrap and post pictures about it on Twitter. This approach works, that much is obvious.

Wreckfish started as a Kickstarter project, I know because the very pretty lady opposite who dined opposite me backed it to the tune of a ton. We’d kind of forgotten about the dinner for two it entitled her to until it was nearly too late, making a last minute booking at the pretty building on Seel Street, and jumping aboard a train filled with football fans intent on spoiling my morning G&T. Inside the restaurant the space is arguably the prettiest of the group; the large open kitchen to the left of the door a nice touch, the shades of grey and petrol blue smart and modern.

Having been a fanboy of Ushers (Gary; not the singer) food for some time, the menu is familar to me. We intentially stay clear of his classics; the parfait, or the slowly braised beef shiny with a heavily reduced sauce, and look to the bits of the menu that are new to us. We order a very fairly priced red and set to work. The foccacia is springy and delicious, though not as rich with olive oil as I recall. I save a couple of pieces for the starter of potato and leek soup that is thin and short on seasoning, though comes together a little more once the pancetta cream starts to merge with it. The other starter of cauliflower risotto is by now a famaliar trick, blitz cauliflower until they look like grains and cook in stock. The nuggets of the same veg cooked in vadouvan spice are lovely, as is the clever addition of puffed rice. It’s the highlight of the meal.

Mains mostly fail to deliver. A nicely cooked piece of stonebass is ruined by a basil flavoured broth that contains solid borlotti beans and more inept seasoning. And I’m sorry for the constant whining about salt, but with only pepper mills on the table there isnt much I can do about it. And it’s not like those awful Ducasse brasseries that intentionally keep it light; I’ve eaten the group’s food before, I know how bold it can be. A hulk of pork is just too generous in size, atop of a saffron risotto that has too much lemon juice so that it clashes with the slow cooked pig. That pork is lovely around the outer where the meat has caramelised, less so as you approach the bone. We have the parmesan and truffle chips purely out of greed that lack crunch.

Dessert raises the game, though not without its imperfections for all to see. Claire loves her pear and almond tart, but I cant get past the fact that the pastry has cracked and is effectively served as two pieces. Maybe I’m being silly, but in my mind it shows an arrogance to serve something that clearly isn’t as it is intended. The other dessert has Guinness ice cream, baked treacle, prunes, and peanuts. It’s very well balanced; heady and adult. Almost a grown up sticky toffee pudding.

Service was slick, and we are in and out in an hour. The bill, with that pre-paid dinner voucher and a chargeable bottle of wine, is just over £130, though you could shave 20% off that by going a la carte and not backing them on Kickstarter. This was a meal hard to love, the worst I have personally had from a group continuing to expand at a rapid rate. Not that they need our money, but we won’t be backing them anymore. After a train journey especially to eat here, I’ve completely lost interest.