Not for us the Michelin experience, so how does Mark Birchall's new 'casual' offshoot shape up? By Gerry Corner
SIRI was leading us up the garden path. Alas, not the garden path that curls around the grounds of our intended destination.
We were attempting to locate The Barn, the new undertaking at Moor Hall, an ancient West Lancashire site which, if you haven’t heard, accommodates a 16th century manor house with all the trimmings of a five-acre garden, lake, moat and glass houses, and whose recent restoration, even viewed by night, is captivating.
Google Maps got us there in the end, somewhere off the A59 in Aughton, in that territory which is not quite the suburbs and not quite the country. Other satellite navigation systems are available.
'Puddings galore' either means there’s plenty of choice for dessert or Honor Blackman’s classic Bond girl has been rebranded for obesity-crisis Britain
At the core of Moor Hall is a restaurant (with rooms) that has acquired a Michelin star in a blink. At the helm, Mark Birchall, previously executive chef at the two-starred L’Enclume in Cumbria, who has taken but a few months to shine here.
The Barn, a short walk across the grounds, is the casual dining option for those lacking the serious money. It offers “great things”, including 35-day-aged rib eye steaks, a full vegetarian menu, and “puddings galore”, which either means there’s plenty of choice for dessert or Honor Blackman’s classic Bond girl has been rebranded for obesity-crisis Britain.
We happened to be in the area – a long story involving two teenagers and a wedding – and thought we’d try Moor Hall on the off chance. But not for us the full Mark Birchall. With no room at the Michelin, we were directed to the substantial outbuilding across the way, not quite the stable of legend, but with a pianist playing Fairytale Of New York up in the rafters, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
Considering we’d called on spec (normally it’s reservations only) the staff were most accommodating, squeezing us in with an easy efficiency that lasted to the end, and which we would have been happy to reward without it being taken out of our hands via the “discretionary” service charge. Ah well.
Wooden roof trusses, impressive and imposing, are allowed to dominate the long room. There’s a nice angular take on the traditional chandelier, but otherwise it’s a fairly standard conversion job: wood floors, exposed brick, ducting, functional tables, and just the slight nagging feeling that we’re in the cheap seats.
(Not so cheap; with wine from the economy end of the list we still racked a hefty bill. Meanwhile, those rib-eyes will set you back £32 a piece.)
While the Michelin menu speaks the poetry of nasturtium and chrysanthemum, sea buckthorn and meadowsweet, The Barn’s more prosaic attractions of Goosnargh chicken, belly pork, steak and chips play to the crowd. That said, the apron-clad pan-handlers in the big open kitchen at end of the room are a class act.
Among the starters, smoked salmon, soup and chicken liver pate – sorry, parfait – provide limited inspiration. Roast scallop, leek and potato is well presented but the potato is a minute or two short of cooked right through, and it’s all a little one-toned, flavour wise, colour wise. For £13, you want a bit more.
Mushroom risotto (£8) is much more the thing, bang-on rice entwined in savoury, marrow-rich stock, dressed up with chanterelle mushrooms and a crispy chicken wing.
Monkfish (£18), a photogenic offering, arrives in two roasted, perfectly prepared, if not overgenerous, chunks, fleshed out with a couple of nondescript mussels, in a richly creamy sauce; earthy blobs of pureed artichoke and the gentle spice of padron peppers lending balance to the proceedings.
Herdwick lamb (£24), in three fair slices, bears the flavour of a beast raised on England’s highest, roughest, rainiest terrain and is cooked precisely the recommended medium. It comes with intensely green tenderstem broccoli, a spoonful of pea puree and a light sauce lifted with anchovy. Fine and dandy but by the time you add in a few spuds you’re pushing a casual thirty quid, for which price you should be making us swoon.
From the sides, all £4, come Charlotte potatoes with herbs and white balsamic, the vinegar added with way too heavy a hand; macaroni cheese with brioche crumbs and bacon, the latter having evidently gone AWOL, and, much the best, glazed carrots, organic red and yellow batons, full of flavour and dressed up with butter and herbs.
For pudding, sumptuous rhubarb, blood orange and meringue (£8), soft and crisp and sharp and sweet and all in total harmony. And then, as another Yuletide tune drifts over the room, what else but the baby cheeses?
More precisely, wedges of British and Irish cheeses (£9) from Moor Hall’s own ageing room, among them a thoroughly ripe soft cheese akin to Camembert, a decent mature cheddar, a goat’s cheese you could really take or leave, and a soft, rich blue we could gorge all night. A well-judged chutney and brittle, featherlight fennel biscuits provide excellent company.
I’m not one for eating while being accompanied by a piano but the musician in tonight played with a skill and assurance we couldn’t help but appreciate.
He barely hit a bad note and as he turned out the old favourites to order, we got the feeling he was holding back his best work. Which, as it happens, is exactly how we felt about the kitchen.
All scored Confidential reviews are paid for by the company, never the venue or a PR outfit. Critics dine unannounced and their opinions are completely independent of any commercial relationships.
The Barn at Moor Hall,
Prescot Road, Aughton
L39 6RT (don't ask Siri)
Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind in the area: fine dining v the best fine dining, Sunday roasts against the best Sunday roasts, etc. On this basis, the scores represent...
1-5: The dog's dinner; 6-9: Netflix and chill; 10-11: In an emergency; 12-13: If you happen to be passing; 14-15: Worth a trip out; 16-17: Very good to exceptional; 18-20: As good as it gets
Scallop 7/10, risotto 9/10, monkfish 9/10, lamb 8.5/10, potatoes 4/10, carrots 8/10, mac and cheese 7/10, rhubarb 9/10, cheese 8/10)
All the right notes