Is this really the ‘best restaurant in the North West’? Angie Sammons finds out.
There’s this restaurant I head to when it all gets too much. We have this unspoken arrangement: they look after me and I do my best to look after them.
For the bit of promo advice I dish out, they dish out the dinner. No money changes hands, which is something they have probably come to regret on the occasions I have walked in and headed straight for their bar after a stressful day in the real world.
The other theory about presenting food imaginatively is that people don’t mind shelling out a few bob more
The point being that in the short time spent there I have picked up valuable, perspective-shifting pointers about the running of a restaurant after a lifetime being its consumer: the enfant in the kitchen, for example, who reminds me that modern dishes are 70 percent about the presentation and just 30 percent about the flavour of the raw materials: get the former right and you enhance the sensory experience and therefore elevate the taste.
His boss, self confessed “old school”, looks from the corner of his weathered eye as the kid (top student at one of eastern Europe’s finest catering schools before graduating to a five star Hilton) gets to work. His plates are all about variety, contrast and attention to detail, the mentor and the pupil each bringing something new to the proverbial table.
Our comrades from Other Places, who tirelessly drive the engines of our nation’s kitchens, frequently drive their innovation too, making them the better places we have come to know and love.
For their trouble, of course, they face being told to fuck off to wherever they came from, as we “take back control” of our borders sometime soon. Perhaps we will congratulate ourselves with a good old British doner kebab as the barricades come crashing down.
It is from this back office that I am also reminded of how much hard graft goes into making a restaurant operation, or any operation for that matter, appear effortless, slick.
So with this in mind, we take a day trip to Chester, to see how the restaurant recently hailed best in the North West, by the Waitrose Good Food Guide, oils its machine.
Joseph Benjamin, founded by brothers Joe and Ben Wright, sits just inside the city’s ancient Roman walls and is no stranger to accolades. There are Michelin stickers plastered all over the front door, testimonies to the Bib Gourmand it retains year after year.
It occupies a good stretch of the beginning of Northgate Street, three units, possibly four, with Porta Tapas, another of its ventures, sitting on the corner. Inside JB, a warren of sunny rooms house dozens of babbling diners; a casual affair, bookshelves lending a domestic air. Framed posters celebrate arts events gone by; unclothed, easy clean tables are packed together for punters and profit maximus.
To this end, JB serves something for every appetite and timeframe from hearty lunchtime sandwiches and pre-theatre specials (the innovative Story House is just over the road) to a traditional a la carte.
The other theory about presenting food imaginatively is that people don’t mind shelling out a few bob more. So it would seem rude to question the £7.75 price tag on a pair of modest sardines, elevated, as they are, by a butter bean and harissa hummous, preserved lemon dressing and a pleasing confetti of pomegranate seeds. And all very fit it is too.
Ditto wild mushroom orzotto (£7.75), whose earthy, ewes cheese, chive oil and pasta beauty is a thing to behold on the eye and on the fork. Velvety, almost mystic, I’d urge you to order two, but alas it has been pulled from the menu.
“It was only on for a few days”, I am subsequently told; a decision they may wish to reverse.
It is Sunday, easily the most depressing day of the week, so two roasts are offered: pig of some sort and Goosnargh chicken ballotine (£13.50), an economic way of making the breast meat go further by curling it around a hefty cylinder of stuffing - in this case apricot and cashew - baking and then slicing down to serve.
Not that I’m complaining, it is all very good if a little bit cloying, a tidemark of sweet potato or squash puree (who knows?) doing little to foil the fruity stuffing and glazed carrots. There is nothing wrong with the roasties (crunchy and just cooked) or the charred broccoli (£3.50) served in a coarse nutty and peppery Romesco.
Fat, pink wedges of duck breast huddle with pickled plums (£18.50), pointing to the sky (another presentation tip). There’s lovely chargrilled celeriac and smoked aubergine puree which all adds to the chefs’ workload, but the effort is appreciated.
Vanilla ice cream and a beautifully soft orange shortbread (£4.95) round things off, but the pudding prize goes to an excellent slice of melting fruitcake accompanied by a sliver of creamy Stilton (£7.50).
Cogs in the service side of things are mostly very smooth, even if they slow down at times. Nevertheless, JB is a finely tuned piece of hard work, which backs its style with substance and well worth seeking out should you happen to get lost on the banks of the Dee.
As for me running a restaurant, never in a million years.
Joseph Benjamin,140 Northgate Street, Chester, CH1 2HT Tel: 01244 344 295
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. 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.
Sardines 8; Orzotto 9; Chicken roast 7; duck 8; orange shortbread 8; fruitcake and Stilton 9
Smooth and slick
Warm and chic