Friday, 22 July 2016
Burnt Truffle, Heswall
No matter how many great restaurants open up in the many far-flung corners of the country, no matter how many times the national newspapers make a concerted effort to review sites in Manchester, Leeds and York, no matter how many places in Cornwall or the Lakes or the Scottish Highlands win Michelin stars or find themselves in the upper reaches of so many "best restaurant" lists, there's still a huge temptation to regard London as the last word in dining and epicentre of restaurant culture and anywhere decent in the provinces as a blip, a one-off, impressive maybe but unusual, nothing more.
And I'm as guilty as anyone - still patronisingly surprised, after all these years, when anywhere north of Watford is any good at all, despite the fact I make a habit of casting my net wide in search for blogging material. Should we really be that incredulous that L'Enclume is as good as it is, given it has access to such extraordinary local Lake District produce? Or that the Black Swan serves world-class cuisine, most of it plucked out of the surrounding lush North Yorkshire countryside? Northerners eat too! Who knew.
But I think what helps us Londoners feel so irritatingly superior is the perceived lack of a healthy "middle ground" dining scene outside of the M25. Yes, places like L'Enclume and the Black Swan are completely wonderful but a good restaurant culture consists of more than the occasional £150/head temple of gastronomy and a high street full of Zizzi and Pizza Express and Ask. What's so good about London isn't just Fera at Claridge's and the Ledbury but the ground occupied by Quality Chop House, the Draper's Arms, Smoking Goat, Hoppers and Bao - those places where you can enjoy exciting food for about £40-45 a head with a bottle of wine. Where would we be without them?
Burnt Truffle in Heswall is chef/owner Gary Usher's answer to the question of good, mid-range, local restaurants in the North West. And I'm trying hard to contain my more superlative instincts because the fact that there is finally somewhere worth eating in Heswall (Heswall!), shouldn't mean I judge them any differently than I would anywhere of a similar budget in London. So I'm going to very soberly and objectively explain why everyone living anywhere near this lovely little place should be feeling very pleased with themselves indeed.
Burnt Truffle make their own sourdough bread. This in itself is noteworthy. Drizzled with olive oil and paired with whipped walnut butter, though, it becomes a very special thing, impossible to not overfeed on while it exists on the table.
My own was - fortunately - my favourite of the starters, but then I would say that. Robustly seasoned raw tuna, dressed with cooling white radish and a couple of pretty slices of fried lotus root, and with a slick of lovely powerful avocado/sesame purée (mayonnaise perhaps), this was fun, confident cooking despite being the kind of thing that could go hideously wrong in less than fully competent hands.
Cured duck ham (I assume they'd cured it themselves; it had a nice bite) with roasted beets, ginger and orange was similarly attractive, with a zing of good fresh summer ingredients.
Only the gazpacho wasn't quite up to the task, unfortunately, tasting of little more than blitzed red peppers. The basil "sorbet" had melted into a small puddle and though the black olives were a nice touch, there weren't enough of them to season the large amount of dull pepper mixture. Still, it wasn't inedible and was eaten.
All three main courses were great, though. Jacob's Ladder (beef rib), slow-cooked to gooey, tender perfection, dressed in the most fantastic reduced beef stock (I presume) jus, with some nicely textured chunky chips and a blob of addictive onion purée. The kind of beef rib dish that you wish you were given every time you ordered a beef rib dish but only very occasionally are.
Tender just-pink slices of Barbary duck breast, with some gently Asian-influenced veg and another one of those beautiful sticky reduced sauces. And those cute little balls are made of potato, unannounced on the menu and a lovely little extra flourish.
You'll be able to see how well they'd crisped up the crust on this piece of blackened cod, and with the bright white flesh still flaking wonderfully underneath, an exact bit of cooking. But it sat on top of a clear fish consommée of some kind that would have been worth the price of admission by itself, clear and clean and spiked with samphire and summer greens.
Hot chocolate pudding with popcorn ice cream was as good as it sounded on paper. Unusual ice creams and sorbets being a bit of a theme at Burnt Truffle, and each dessert came with a different flavour - a small detail perhaps in the grand scheme of things but you definitely got the impression they were going to significant extra effort, as opposed to if they'd just put a blob of vanilla on everything like some places would have done.
Lemon millefuille was lovely, rich custard spiked with real vanilla and presented with a blob of intense summer berry couli. I couldn't work out how exactly the "meringues sorbet" featured - it could have been that thing on top but it was surprisingly warm for a sorbet. Either way, it was still a very enjoyable dessert.
You can tell a lot about a place from their cheeseboard. This quartet of (left to right) Tomme Brulée (lightly blowtorched to give the frills a bit of a crisp, a nice touch), Flower Marie, Montbriac goat's and a pungent, softly oozing slice of Soumaintain is a masterful selection and didn't leave you wanting for anything, not even a blue. Yes, it's sometimes fun to pick your own choice from a cheese trolley but then when you're in safe hands (only when you're in safe hands) it's nice to have a selection brought to you. This was a very good cheeseboard.
With a bottle of good Douro and a glass of prosecco, the bill came to £126.50 - that's £42 for three courses each made with love and care and skill, and served with astonishing attention and flair considering service wasn't even added onto the bill. So we happily paid the usual percentage and went merrily on our way.
It shouldn't really matter that Burnt Truffle is in Heswall; it's a restaurant that could hold its head up anywhere, and clearly there's no reason why residents of the Wirral shouldn't eat every bit as well as anywhere else. But right now, in 2016, places like this in the quiet suburban corners of the UK the are still a rarity and until there's a Burnt Truffle in every high street (and Usher has plans in motion to this very end - his third restaurant Hispi opens soon in Didsbury, let's hope it's the third of many) I think I'm still allowed to get excited about them. One day, maybe Burnt Truffle will be just another great place to eat in the North West. Until then, it's a unique, and wonderful, anomaly.
Until there's a Liverpool version of the app, see where's good in London