Thursday, 8 September 2016
Sticky Walnut, Chester
For all Chester's undoubted charms - the stunning medieval "rows", the Roman ruins, the zoo with its walk-through bat cave (a particular favourite of mine, that), it's probably fair to say that few people have ever made a special effort to visit this picturesque North West town for the dynamic food scene. OK, so there's the Grosvenor hotel which, over the years, has hosted a succession of high-falutin' chefs and I'm sure is very nice but a quick look at the menu tends to suggest it's the kind of star-chasing fine-dining that you'd find at any number of 5* hotel restaurants rooms up and down the country. Without wanting to denigrate Grosvenor chef Simon Radley's achievements, there's nothing particularly Chester about a £100/head tasting menu of Anjou pigeon with morels, and turbot and artichoke.
No, a healthy food culture is measured not by what's happening amidst the soft furnishings and silver service of a fancy hotel but behind the doors of the high street bistro and until recently, well, pickings here were slim. Chester is a town with no shortage of visiting tourists to fleece and, as has been proven time and time again, when anywhere doesn't have to try hard to make money, there's very few places bother trying at all. McDonald's, Nando's, Pizza Express, Bella Pasta, a smattering of timid pizzerias and a chain steakhouse, if you ignored the half-timbered buildings and low-beamed ceilings you could be in any high street in Britain. So far, so depressing.
But then, along comes Sticky Walnut. By their own admission, they are "just a bistro", an unpretentious, cosy little spot on the wrong side of the tracks (that makes it sound worse than it is; Hoole still a nice, villagey part of town) serving daily specials and crowdpleasing Modern British dishes for not very much money. The concept is hardly revolutionary. But by completely nailing right on the head everything that makes a good local restaurant the team at Sticky Walnut have, almost accidentally, created what for many may just be the ideal restaurant, a perfect combination of intelligent sourcing, careful cooking and beaming service that gets more or less everything right.
House bread is focaccia, beautifully moist and dripping with good olive oil. There's not much more than that to say - as house breads go this was a very good example.
Flamed mackerel, with a lovely crisp skin and moist flesh thanks to some expert timing, came dressed with crumbled black pudding, pickled onions and toasted hazelnuts. It all sat on a smooth and satisfying hazelnut purée which made a clever foil for the oily fish and made for a very satisfying whole.
Dill & coriander-cured salmon came artistically draped with fresh herbs and petals, with focaccia crumb for texture and sour cream to bind it all together. They'd done something clever with bits of cucumber - pressed or cured maybe I'm not sure - but these added a nice savoury note too.
Then beetroot with spiced pumpkin seeds and ricotta, hardly an earth shatteringly unique combination of flavours but done very well, and with some candied walnuts (Sticky Walnuts, if you will) providing sweetness and crunch.
Mains continued the theme, being well crafted and intelligently presented. Sea bream showed another skilled way with fish, getting a good crisp skin without sacrificing any tenderness in the flesh. Flakes of salt cod were also scattered about but almost the most notable thing about this dish was the veg - courgette and fennel with a beautiful smoky char from the grill, and robustly seasoned.
Sweetcorn agnolotti was colourful and inventive, a long way from the usual token veggie dish. The corn itself was nicely grilled, the pasta had a good bite and the tomato consommé swimming around it was clean and precise. Also, some greenery studded around the place turned out to be sweetcorn shoots - and had a delicate, sweet flavour of their own.
Cod was a thing of beauty, a vast bright-white fillet, gently browned on top, sat on a bed of charred spring onions. The Sticky Method appears to largely be to get some straightforwardly enjoyable ingredients, treat them without too much fuss and make sure the accompanying veg is interesting enough in its own right (via the liberal application of direct heat) to not be an irrelevance.
Desserts were no less accomplished or enjoyable. My own honeycomb ice cream was thick and rich, impressive enough without a vast chunk of "honeycomb" (the stuff from the middle of a Crunchie bar) to chomp alongside it.
Damson and tart made the most of its unusual main ingredient with a delicate thin pastry and a smooth, warm filling. Clotted Cream ice cream offset the tart damson jam with rich dairy, and had a nice light texture almost like a mousse.
And chocolate sponge with orange and mascarpone, a winning combination even in lesser hands, was crafted and presented superbly, with the malty notes of a Horlicks ice cream adding extra layers of complexity.
It will be clear from the above that Sticky Walnut aren't in the business of reinventing the role of a neighbourhood restaurant, or pushing the boundaries of gastronomy. Everyone knows what's meant by "local bistro", the template was set years ago, and despite the many horrors carried out in its name up and down the country most people will know exactly what they want - and expect - when sitting down to eat at one. All Sticky Walnut need to do is meet people's expectations on service, value and quality and job done.
But it's the very fact that Sticky Walnut isn't some mindbending revolution in the dining experience that makes it so important. Foodies that scan these pages may dream of a day when every town has a faultless supergastropub like the Hind's Head or the Sportsman to call their own but the reality is that level of fuss and fanfare (not to mention expense) will never find an audience outside of a few obsessives. Here, every bit as much as its sister Burnt Truffle on the Wirral, is the restaurant that could exist in every town, making the most of seasonal local ingredients, serving them with charm and grace, and sending you on your way with change in your pocket and joy in your heart. Sticky Walnut, for all its self-deprecation and modestly-stated ambition, is the future of British dining. Just don't let them hear you saying that.
By my app! You won't regret it.