Monday 4 March 2024

Solo, Aughton

When I was first out of university, trying to decide what to do with my life, and with no long term plan other than the fact I knew - eventually - I wanted to move to London and stay there, I got a job as a cashier at Ormskirk Abbey National. Ormskirk is ostensibly a market town, but if you went expecting stalls laden with craft spirits, high-welfare butchery, local cheeses and organic seasonal vegetables, well let's just say you were likely to be disappointed. Cheap underwear, knockoff Chinese kids toys and somewhat less-than-official football scarves and hats they could do, but none of those things would really justify a special journey to the place. It was a little town of little ambition, and while there's nothing wrong with that exactly, it was hardly a scintillating destination.

So it's somewhat of a strange situation, 20 years on, to be sat in a very smart modern restaurant in an otherwise completely unremarkable suburb of Ormskirk called Aughton, whose population of 8,000 has four - yes four - Michelin stars to share between them. By way of an example, the most starred city in the world, Tokyo, can only boast 50,000 people per star. And if you're thinking "why Aughton", well you're not the only one. To this day I'm not sure how they've become the Ludlow of West Lancs, but here we are anyway, with Moor Hall (two stars), the Barn at Moor Hall (another star) and now Solo (one star).

Like a number of fine dining restaurants that charge a fair whack for dinner in the evening, at lunchtime Solo charges a much more reasonable amount - £45. Of course, this neccessitates fewer courses, and the use of cheaper raw materials - think pork, cod and trout which in the evening are swapped out for turbot, smoked eel and pigeon - but of course it's all coming from the same kitchen so you get all the same high-end techniques, bells and whistles, applied to slightly more conventional ingredients. Although in this case, still excellent - like this chalk stream trout glazed with tare with an intelligent and attractive accompaniment of dill/buttermilk sauce and cucumber "spaghetti".

And this pork belly (I think it was belly anyway) in the form of a nugget of pulled meat inside a thick, crunchy casing of maple toffee. With it, a remoulade of celeriac and apple and then on top of it all a liberal dressing of truffle "snow" - a very Moor Hall technique I hope they don't mind me saying - which finished it all off beautifully. There was just nothing less than brilliant about any part of any of these dishes, you really do get your money's worth.

Mains, it won't be a surprise to discover, were equally impressive. A neatly sliced loin of venison came with a deep, rich sauce that would have been worth the price of admission by itself. Alongside, a cute little plump baby cabbage - "pancetta cabbage" - which I think I detected had little teeny bits of bacon hidden within its folds, quite an achievement considering it looked like a whole fresh (albeit tiny) cabbage. A dollop of caramelised pureed cauliflower and a little stack of braised white beetroot added yet more interesting textures and flavours. I wanted this to last forever.

And the other main, a big fillet of cod, fried to a lovely golden crust, on top of "aerated tartare", a supremely light and fluffy mousse-like dressing studded with little crunchy bits of something-or-other (perhaps puffed wheat?), kale and brown shrimp. Like everything else, it was full of strong flavours, an impressive array of textures and was so easy to eat that despite the generous portion it disappeared in record time.

From a very attractive cheeseboard containing just enough French options to keep traditionalists happy but with Sparkenhoe Red and Berkswell amongst others forming the British offering, we were as part of the lunch menu offered Mrs Kirkham's, Garstang Blue and Camembert, enough to keep most people happy I should think. We certainly were.

And the sweet dessert was fantastic too - a supremely light "cheesecake" topped with apple (Bramley) sorbet and cute balls of stewed apple (Braeburn) which created a nice mix of temperatures as well as textures. Oh, and I should spare a mention for the wines too, particularly those matched with the desserts and cheese, which included a sweet plum sake which was truly exceptional.

Topped and tailed by an excellent bread course and some chocolate truffles, the total bill (minus the £20pp deposit) came to £82 each, a figure that could have been tamed if we hadn't had quite so many matching wines but hell, why on earth would you want to do that? The spirit of generosity from the kitchen matched with a sparkling front of house meant we just wanted to spend all day there, and it was a genuinely sad moment as we polished off a Caol Ila and headed out into the Ormskirk rain.

The truth is, I couldn't fault a single thing about Solo. The cooking is exciting and inventive, full of fun and personality, and at lunchtimes at least incredibly good value. Sure, you will have had pork and cod and trout before, but they've found ways of preparing these cheaper ingredients that makes you hardly miss the premium deal at all, although I'm sure dinners are equally lovely. It's a comfortable and attractively fitted out room, with nice well spaced tables and plenty of elbow room. The Moor Hall pedigree is evident from the range of techniques and command of flavour on display, but this is very much its own own beast - a neighbourhood restaurant done good as opposed to a multi-starred international destination restaurant. Although I would happily make the journey back from London to Aughton for another lunch at Solo, just see if I don't.