Neil Sowerby relishes a fine dining discovery in the unlikeliest of settings
Remarkably it’s six years ago that I reviewed new restaurant Where The Light Gets In for Confidentials. Since then it is credited with kickstarting Stockport’s vibrant food and drink scene. OK, the Light shone dazzlingly for me then, but first impressions were daunting. I took a step in the dark up what felt like a fire escape to penetrate the former warehouse’s bare brick interior. Like being in a German Expressionist movie.
Metamorphica’s lamb comes from Sabden in Pendle Witch Country, and is pinkly bewitching in its own right
Echoes? Fast forward to a freezing January Thursday in 2023 and darkness on the edge of Haslingden, a town where the railway doesn’t run, through-traffic takes the A56 bypass, and the only busy restaurant on Lower Deardengate, where we’ve parked, is Siena with its old school Italian crowd-pleasers – cacciatore, caprese and calzone.
I just can’t get my bearings, even though I originally visited Metamorphica last May in its ‘caterpillar becoming pupa’ stage before opening. This review has been nine months in gestation. I foolishly feared in a harsh climate that chef Steven Halligan’s solo project might prove still-born. Now to appreciate the fully flourishing butterfly I have to locate it again. Steep ginnels seem strangely familiar… and yet, the one native we ask scratches his beanie and recommends the katsu at Suru up the road.
Suddenly in a window behind us I spot a familiar insect logo, dimly backlit, and Eureka! Nothing else to yell this is a £78 a head, 12 course tasting menu destination. I ring the bell, we are admitted and the next four delightful hours give the lie to all those ‘tasting menus and chef’s tables are dead’ prognostications. Eye to eye intimacy with a chef? Can be awkward, but possibly revelatory. The latter here.
The back story is all about bravery. On the brink of a pandemic, Halligan, a 2021 National Chef of the Year semi-finalist, takes on a former pub, the Roebuck, half converted into an Indian grill that never opened, and creates a fine dining establishment. No backers, just him and his dad Tim doing all the fitting out. Keeping the lobo from the door by running a (superior) Mexican takeaway.
From the launch Metamorphica limits itself to a maximum of 12 covers, four of those at the open kitchen counter. It’s like being asked to scrutinise a Swiss watchmaker fine tuning small but perfect parts. It remains a two man band. Tim helps with service, his son preps in the back and cooks out front every night of the week. Do they share the washing up? I forget to ask. All I feel is their family warmth. So how have their Herculean efforts paid off?
The rudimentary site I first encountered is now rather sophisticated. Perhaps a little shiny designer kitchen, but very shipshape, as we perch on stools at the chef’s table. It’s quiet, so Captain Smidge the chihuahua gets his own stool after appreciating the wood-burner in the slightly spartan dining room lined with iconic restaurant cookbooks. One is Eleven Madison Park. It was a meal at Daniel Humm’s New York three star that helped crystallise the 28-year-old’s ambition to be a chef/patron himself.
Such gastronomic temples are over endowed with kitchen brigades and servers. That’s not an option on a shoestring in Haslingden, so our parade of dishes is an exercise in refined simplicity. With a glass of Tom Oliver’s ‘Five Friends Still’ (the impressive cider list is only bettered by the whiskies) I nibble seriously good salt and vinegar coated pecans that have first been poached in a sugar syrup, then deep-fried.
“A dish I stole from Claude Bosi at Hibiscus,” Halligan confides as he plates the first of two small dishes involving cheese. Brioche doughnuts, dusted with sorrel sugar, burst with stilton. Fine finger food, bettered by a cute savoury take on bread and butter pudding, where a cream-soaked croissant dough combines prettily with mushrooms and ripe Camembert. As you might guess, he also cultures the house butter and bakes his own bread (not 100 per cent sourdough, but all the springier for it).
Knives and forks arrive with a mackerel, turnip and apple salad. The fish has been quickly salt cured in gin and citrus, the skin torched for crispness. I recognise the chervil and fennel, maybe lovage, in the pickle juice but apparently there is meadowsweet there too. The meal takes off.
I soon twig that the Granny Smith beside him at the counter is a recurring motif across the Halligan repertoire. Later on this menu it reappears in sorbet form as a palate cleanser. Pears, pecans and honey are other staples that reveal an unashamedly sweet tooth.
Next up the dish that feels like the creative heart of the menu. Sourced from Wild Harbour in Cornwall, the tranche of brill would be a joy unadorned, but a drizzle of honey gives it what our chef calls a ‘lovely, caramelised char’. This harmonises with a thrilling sweet/sour buttery sauce fashioned from broccoli, florets and puree, fresh orange, celery, shallots, leeks and fines herbes.
A pork loin dish, though, suffers from its own leanness. Resting on the pass a couple of feet away from us there seems an adequate cloak of fat on the chunk destined to be shared by us and another couple on the culinary voyage, but it definitely emerges on the chewy side. Easily forgiven because of the soothing ‘mole’ it sits on. An un-spicy cousin of the Yucatan original, it’s a puree of roast tomatoes, roast pumpkin, lemon and much else, scattered with pumpkin seeds.
More loin. Metamorphica’s lamb comes from Sabden in Pendle Witch Country, and is pinkly bewitching in its own right, sharing star billing with minty griddled courgettes and a courgette puree. Not really seasonal, but a joy after a recent surfeit of root veg.
The first of a trio of sweets is the best advertisement for chef’s countering as we watch our man delicately toast an Italian meringue infused with turmeric root stock, which encases a bitter orange sorbet and, beneath, a dacquoise sponge soaked in pecan and orange syrup. Spoon into its mottled surface and it’s a total wow.
‘Pear, Black Grape & Walnut’ is a sweet come savoury contrast. Maple syrup verjus is a new one on me, but it provides the dressing for Roja pear pieces, sliced grapes and almond honey roasted walnut. Underneath is toasted almond yoghurt and pear sorbet, on top is grated frozen Lancashire cheese. Odd but a grower.
A toasted marshmallow flavoured with the kitchen’s own lemon and orange essence serves as a cutely packaged petit four. I accompany it decadently with a complimentary tot of Edradour Highland single malt from the amply stocked whisky shelves. For £98 you can indulge in a six glass Whisky Journey. A flight of six matching wines costs £48 or upgrade to a £78 premium wine offering.
All this is testament to the ambition of Metamorphica. Halligan has garnered awards since starting in kitchens aged 16. His CV includes Room, Mr Coopers and while later freelancing, a stint at the aforementioned Where The Light Gets In, but this feels like the ultimate destination for an independently minded talent.
A colleague suggested the restaurant name might be a little pretentious. Well, who needs another ‘Grill’ or ‘Brasserie’? Randomly, Ovid’s great poem cycle Metamorphoses springs to mind. I’m happy to accept it might have its foundation in Metamorphica, the classic magic trick associated with Houdini and brought up to date by musician Criss Angel. Maybe Steven is metaphorically breaking free from a box that constrained him. Maybe referencing the metamorphic rocks caused by compression? Or mirroring the shape changing stages out of which a butterfly emerges. Whatever, the chef’s not telling.
Restaurant Metamorphica, 1 Charles Lane, Haslingden, Rossendale, BB4 5EA. 01706 614617.
Follow Neil Sowerby on Twitter @antonegomanc, or on Instagram @sowerby_neil
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidentials and completely independent of any commercial relationship. They are a first-person account of one visit by one, knowledgeable restaurant reviewer and don't represent the company as a whole.
Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
pecans 7, brioche and stilton 8, croissant 9, mackerel 9, bread & butter 8, brill 9, pork 7, honey & apple 7, lamb 9, orange & turmeric 8, pear 7, marshmallow 8.
It could not fail to be attentive but it genuinely feels a shared voyage of discovery
The hermetic experience might not work for everyone. but it does for me. And the fellow guests we chat with