Friday, 30 August 2019

Chef's Table, Chester

I don't know when it was exactly that London lost its monopoly of great places to eat in the UK. As with so many things, change is gradual - perhaps when l'Enclume won the Good Food Guide's Best Restaurant award back in 2012 it signalled a certain shift away from the capital, but then the odd fine dining establishment has always existed nestled in well-heeled countryside - the Manoir aux Quatre Saison in Oxfordshire, for example, or Gidleigh Park in Devon. L'Enclume was different, of course, because it made more of the bounty of its location and its partly foraged, rustic-yet-refined menu was genuinely groundbreaking, but even so, back then London was usually still where you first went to open a serious restaurant.

So what changed? Well, rents didn't help - to turn a profit owner/operators have had to really think hard about their margins and the creep out of zones 1 and 2 into newly be-restauranted areas like Lewisham and Leyton is well documented, but then when have London rents ever not been an issue? The grabby mitts of the Shaftesbury Estate have been around much longer ago than 2012. And Brexit has surely made a lot of the people who might be cooking and serving your dinner feel like they might be better off in a non-racist country that isn't about to detonate 40 years worth of trading networks for no good reason, but show me any member of the hospitality industry that's ever found hiring staff easy and I'll show you a liar. Brexit was, is, and always will be, a disaster, but restaurants have shuttered for want of decent personnel well before 2016.

The simple reality is, London restaurants got more boring - becoming increasingly gimmicky and superficial, relying on (that awful word) Instagrammable signature dishes and unusual interiors - at the same time as independent gastropubs and high street bistros came to realise that the availability of top producers and a nearby field full of wood sorrel is something very few places near a tube stop could use to their advantage. This is, of course, a brutal generalisation - there are still great restaurants in London, but a vast majority of the most exciting meals I've had in the last few years have been in locations up and down the country, far outside the M25, serving food with the kind of immediacy and honesty that you rarely see in the big smoke.

And so to Chester, where a little high street bistro called Chef's Table is serving fantastic food, with a smile, at prices that would make a London restaurateur weep. First of the 'snacks' were these frog's legs, cutely trimmed into mini drumsticks, breadcrumbed and fried, and resting in a thick pea soup. They were lovely, every bit of them, the peas having an incredible flavour (they own a kitchen garden not far out of town, apparently) and the protein full of tasty fat without being greasy.

And further evidence that Chef's Table aren't afraid to offer unusual ingredients, a lamb's tongue "yakitori", bronzed with ponzu and accompanied by a colourful coleslaw of pickled cabbages, carrots, and sesame oil. Asian seasonings and sauces abount on the Chef's Table menu, but are never clumsy or jarring - this is a kitchen in supreme command of its influences.

A generously proportioned cube of tonkatsu, full of melty fatty pork and dressed in more of that zingy ponzu - just enough to offset the pork but not enough to set your teeth on edge - was one of those things that you wish you could eat forever, free-flowing arteries be damned. Those on the top, by the way, aren't strings of saffron but finely-chopped smoked chilli, which was a clever little touch.

Kitchen Garden Salad was quite breathtakingly pretty, a medley of miniature vegetables and shoots all woven in and out of each other, with croutons for texture and bound with a large poached duck egg. It was all good but I was particularly taken with a bit of what I think was turnip pickled in beetroot juice for colour, a little nod to Middle Eastern comfort food.

Chef's Table put just as much emphasis on vegan dishes as non-vegan, with a whole separate plant-based menu to choose from. This is, in fact, how all restaurants should approach veganism - as you're probably more than aware, simply removing dairy from a vegetarian dish is a surefire way to end up with something inedibly bland. This mushroom and avocado crostini didn't suffer at all from lack of animal product - mushrooms cooked in oil provided an earthy, meaty base note while whipped avocado played the role of mayonnaise admirably. And although I didn't order it (obviously), I would happily have eaten it, which tells you all you need to know.

Given that everything that had come before it was so artful and precise, the vegan main - a huge falafel burger and chips - came as a bit of a shock. I suppose we only had ourselves to blame in ordering a burger and underestimating the generosity of Northern restaurant kitchens, but nice though it was there's only so much falafel and bread you can wade through before waving the little white flag. That said, the romesco sauce was cracking, and the triple cooked chips utterly brilliant - golden brown and crunchy on the outside, and creamy within.

My own main was chicken, and though beautifully presented with a nice golden brown skin, it was rather underseasoned and strangely unsatisfying, which was a shame. But I loved the stuffed courgette flower, and the girolle mushrooms, and the sharp saffron-spiked hollandaise sauce, so all was not lost at all.

A second vegan main of pea and lovage risotto got us back on track though. Full of late summer colour and enhanced with something called "tomato essence", much like the crostini the lack of dairy was a complete non-issue, and unlike the falafel burger the portion size was spot-on. And isn't it a pretty thing?

Desserts were highlights of a meal not short on highlights. A raspberry a white chocolate delice, sat in a fruit syrup, had a beautifully balanced flavour, and a sorbet made with anise hyssop was soft and smooth.

And finally honey and lavender steamed pudding is absolutely the best thing to happen to honey and lavender, so rich and comforting it drew gasps from all at the table. It was topped with "apple crumble ice cream", which is probably the best thing to happen to apple crumble as well. Just brilliant.

The bill, with plenty of booze but without service which they didn't even ask for, came to £40 a head, which I hardly need to point out is pretty astonishing value considering the amount of thought and care that had gone into the dishes. True, I had my issues with a couple of bits and pieces but it's worth stressing that, cosseted by attentive and knowledgeable staff in that cosy little room, we left Chef's Table with our spirits in the clouds. Very, very few restaurants are quite this joyful an experience, and quite so easy to enjoy.

So, another point for the North West, and yet another fantastic restaurant Not In London. I can unhesistatingly recommend a meal here in much the same way I can unhesitatingly recommend the Parkers Arms or indeed Sticky Walnut just around the corner - in short, if you don't enjoy Chef's Table then eating out just isn't for you. They are absolutely nailing on the head everything that makes a good restaurant, and most of what makes a great one, and is a reason to visit Chester all by itself. Lucky, lucky Chester.



Matt said...

I'm having a bit of trouble with the perspective in the burger picture. If it's a "huge" burger then those chips must be gargantuan!

Chris Pople said...

Matt: Yes, they were! Each the size of a roast potato.