Tuesday, 10 March 2015
Lawns at the Thornton Hall Hotel, Wirral
Though the perks of being a food blogger are many and varied, and I like a free lunch as much as the next man, the very happiest moments I've enjoyed over the 8 or so years this thing has been going are when I've been able to treat someone else. Goodness knows nobody gets into food blogging for the money, and I have to keep a lid on the number of invites-to-review for my own sanity as well as anything else, but it's a genuinely lovely thing to be able to take, say, a friend along to a 16-course tasting menu at Fera, or take a small group to an all-expenses foodie tour of Cornwall. I'm not naive enough to think these PR excursions are done out of the goodness of their heart, but even so, it is very often enormous fun - more than adequate "payment" for a hobby that's never going to be a net benefit to my wallet.
So while a trip to a country hotel and fine dining restaurant on the Wirral wouldn't have been much fun on my lonesome (believe me, I've done it before; it's not), the fact they very generously offered to also accommodate my parents meant it turned into a little family weekend away and an excuse to share a more substantial part of the perks of writing about food than the odd signed cookbook or taster set of flavoured vodkas that I usually bring up north for them.
Lawns, in all honesty, could have gone either way. I admit my heart dropped when I first caught sight of the hotel building that hosts it; what had presumably once been a handsome Victorian-gothic pile was tragically lost behind a modern glass and concrete facade, all wheelchair ramps and fire doors, that ranks alongside the destruction of the Euston Arch in terms of cultural vandalism. Why do people do this? Why? Inside are some oak-panelled rooms of genuine potential aesthetic value but they're surrounded by so much soul-sucking chain-hotel-branded decor that even these original bits (a small anteroom with a fireplace, and the main dining room itself) feel theme park-false. It makes you want to cry.
Anyway ignoring that (for now), the food at Lawns is at least aiming higher than the hotel side of things. We started with house bread, which I'm going to assume they made themselves, and came in the form of some dinky Hovis-shaped loaves and good local butter. Nothing spectacular, but they could have just bought some in like plenty of places do, and deserve credit for not going down that route.
An amuse of raw scallop, next, and foam. Subtle flavours, perhaps, but effective - I enjoyed the citrusy foam and it all displayed some decent technical skill.
Mussels with mushroom dashi gel and Guinness had a similar problem of a general timidity of flavour - odd when you consider that none of these ingredients are known usually for being particularly subtle. A pretty, and remarkably modern presentation, though, which counts for something.
Best of the starters was some tender, pink slices of partridge breast, paired with, er, pear, as well as chestnut and date puree. Good ingredients, cooked well, presented nicely, and a delight to eat. I've just realised that this is an edible "partridge in a pear tree". Very funny.
Brisket, I'm afraid, had to go back. A huge block of completely dry, inedible matter that should never have been served, it was a perfect example of a kitchen sticking rigidly to a recipe that's probably worked many times in the past with a chunk of meat singularly unfit for purpose. These types of dishes live or die based on whether your beef has enough marbling to carry through the slow cooking - if it does, you end up with a lovely juicy chunk of umami-rich cow, which should collapse with the slightest prod with a fork. If you use cheap beef, you end up with a Lego brick.
Fortunately the fat that exists in healthy quantities in even quite poor cuts of beef cheek was enough to save a main from a similar fate. The cheek itself was soft and full of flavour, perhaps still a bit cheap tasting but drenched in enough treacle-y jus to make it worthwhile, and a nice sausage-y faggot also held plenty of rich juices. Oh and there were delicate little potato fondants that were so lovely I wish they'd given me a few more of them. I'm glad I couldn't taste much of the advertised coffee, mind.
Sea bream was, well, a bit weird. Although the fillets were cooked well, and had a nice flavour, there were just too many of them piled up on a plate with not enough colour, or texture, going on elsewhere. This dish desperately needed some greens, or a nice sauce to bind the dry ingredients together, and it also needed to lose a good two or three bits of fish.
The highlight of the entire meal was a cheeseboard that was genuinely world class. A good two dozen or so examples from all over the world, we had the usual collection of English flavourites (Lancashire bomb, Colton Basset stilton) but with some really interesting French goats and some excellent stinkies like Epoisses and Vacherin. They were all - most importantly - perfectly kept, not too sweaty or too fridge-fresh, and tasted wonderful. Well done them, I say.
Desserts were good too - salted caramel fondant had the ideal marriage of soft moist exterior and molten centre, paired with a zingy yoghurt sorbet. Rapeseed oil cake was slightly less successful (a bit stodgy) but pine kernel ice cream was a revelation; they should have just served this on its own.
Petit fours were a damn sight better than you get in most places as well - little caramel chocolate cup things, some fruit jellies and some nice smooth fudge. It's what you might expect to get somewhere of this kind but none the worse for that.
Overall, what you get out of a meal like this rather depends on your expectations of a fine dining restaurant in the corner of a sprawling, dated conference hotel on the Wirral. Objectively, there's a lot to pick fault at - mistakes in cooking, the price (£12 starters, £25 mains, it ain't cheap), the unspeakably awful things they've done to the front of the building - and you will have most likely already made your mind up whether you think it's worth your dollar or not.
But I want to just make one more point before dropping a score and scuttling off back to London, and it's this; when I tweeted I was eating at Lawns, I had a number of messages from young hospitality staff - not just chefs but front of house - who are doing very well for themselves in many fine restaurants up and down the country who made their start on this journey here, at as it was then called, the Oak Room. God knows we need anywhere devoting its time to the development of industry talent, and better - much better - they learn their craft here than some pub chain or branch of Pizza Express and while not perfect, it is at least its own place, a high-end operation representative (if not exactly similar to) the kind of place we could do with more of. So for having its heart in the right place, if not always its feet, I won't be too harsh on Lawns. Hell, one day, I may even be back.
I was invited to Lawns and the Thornton Hall Hotel.