Thursday, 12 December 2019

The White Swan at Fence, Lancashire

It's hard to imagine now, but on the run-up to my latest trip to Manchester it was the Bull & Bear I was certain was going to be the weekend's rip-roaring success of a flagship meal, whereas the White Swan at Fence I was more uncertain about. Michelin stars tend to do strange things to rural gastropubs - prices creep up, service becomes more formal, menus more elaborate and fussy. I'd heard good things, of course - I'm not about to waste good money on a complete gamble - but I'd been trying to keep my expectations in check, and if nothing else the previous day's Sky-Sports-Sponsored weirdness certainly helped with that.

I needn't have worried. From the moment we stepped inside this handsome Victorian building, given the warmest of welcomes and shown to our cosy table next to the fireplace, it was clear everything was going to go very well indeed. It's often a tricky balance to get right, holding on to your soul as a community pub while acknowledging the kind of expectations (and prices) that the Michelin accolades bring, but the team at the Swan have created an atmosphere of easy grace and geniality that feels absolutely right for the occasion, and the kind of food they're serving.

Food, by the way, that's amongst the very best I've ever eaten in the country. The menu - at lunchtime anyway - is charmingly short, just two choices each for starter, main and dessert, plus the option of a tasting menu featuring presumably slightly smaller portions of all of the above. It's a mini work of art in itself, with suppliers namechecked, premium ingredients highlighted, and yet accessible - there's nothing too clever-clever or pretentious. The whole operation, in fact, from the décor to the menu to the Christmas decorations, speaks of a group of people with absolutely exquisite taste.

Bread came out first. Warm crusty buns, with an interesting scone-y texture, with a neat quenelle of room-temperature butter (good) and a portion of chicken liver parfait with shaved foie gras (so, so good). For a kitchen to come up with a parfait this notable and give it away as an unadvertised extra to every table shows both a generosity of spirit and a determination to impress in every given moment.

Then, a pretty stoneware beaker containing a tomato consommé covered with basil foam and topped with a few bits of crunchy pancetta. I had forgotten to advise that one of our party was pescatarian, but a replacement consommé was whipped up in less than a minute (the same, minus the pancetta presumably) which just show you how smooth the front of house are and how efficient the kitchen. It had a good deep tomato flavour, the basil as good a match for it as you would hope, and it all added up to a very pleasant, warming little introduction.

I'd like to tell you about the warm smoked salmon starter - with wasbi buttermilk, apple, yuzu and herring roe - and I'm sure it's lovely, but nobody on our table wanted to sacrifice their celeriac 'risotto' with Perigord truffles, so I'll have to tell you about that instead. Once it arrived, nobody regretted their decision. Tiny rice-grain sized chunks of celeriac actually make a better base for a risotto than most risotto rice I've tried, the parmesan came both as a kind of super-tasty hollandaise and shaved on top, and of course a few huge slices of winter truffle added extra seasonal cheer. Refined without being boring, attractive without being prissy, this was an absolutely great dish.

Fortunately, thanks to the pescatarian, I can tell you about both mains, although having tried the Isle of Gigha halibut with spiced onion fondue, saffron, red prawn and tarragon, I can assure you the fish option was hardly a runner-up. Beautifully cooked, meaty halibut, skin gently bronzed, was topped with a single plump red prawn, sweet and satisfying, and all sat in a frothy sauce that was so superbly balanced between dairy and umami seafood that it drew gasps from all of us, one at a time, as we tried it.

Suckling pig came as a tender medallion of pink loin, and a neat section of belly, a delicate layer of skin crisped up like the finest pastry. With it, silky-smooth blobs of cauliflower purée, roast shallot (or pearl onion, not sure) filled with some kind of light mayonnaise, little sprigs of I think broccoli, look it doesn't matter, all you need to know is that it was elegantly presented, technically stunning, and tasted so good you never wanted it to end.

By this point, despite the fact our appetites were beginning to fail us (a portion of super-crunchy triple-cooked chips had plugged any gaps left by the starters and mains) we asked if we could cheekily share one cheese course between 3. They obliged, of course, and proceeded to wheel over what is surely the most impressive cheeseboard in the North West of England. All bases were covered, from washed-rind to blue, and though local makers were featured there were a couple from the continent too. In the end we settled on a Langres, a creamy English blue which I've forgotten the name of (sorry), and the best cheese in Britain bar none, Martin Gott's St James. They were, in case you even needed to ask, perfectly kept and the perfect temperature.

Desserts continued the theme of just being blindingly good in every way. A pre-dessert of caramel custard was like eating a melted Mars bar - this is of course a good thing - and Sticky Toffee Pudding came arranged as a kind of festive tart, topped with winter nuts and berries and a very nice ice cream.

Mango soufflé, an impressive enough bit of work by itself having risen beautifully, came with more top ice cream work, this time coconut flavoured, and a generous jug of heavenly white chocolate sauce. Like everything that had come before, it was sophisticated, elegant and a masterclass in technique but also, most importantly, a riot of flavour.

You'll have probably guessed where I'm going with all this. The White Swan at Fence has, in the dying days of 2019, leapt straight into my own personal top 10 restaurants and may even have nudged the top 5. Everything that's life-affirming and joyous about eating out has been studied, worked at and executed flawlessly, a perfect dance of harmony between a charming (there's that word again, but they really are) front of house and a world-class kitchen, everyone seemingly having the time of their lives. It's deeply infectious, and utterly wonderful.

And so for a restaurant that does everything right, and nothing wrong, it inevitably follows I have to give it my highest mark. For only the second time this year, I've been lucky enough to be served a flawless meal by a small, passionate team that love what they do and communicate that love in spades. You'd have to have a heart of stone to not utterly fall for everything about the place, and I just can't say enough good things about it. But maybe I'd better stop for now, and give you a second to get on the phone and book a table yourself. It'll be the best decision you'll ever make.


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