FRAICHE, the Michelin one-star restaurant in Oxton, has a reputation as being a bit up its arse.
When Gordo was boning up on the place it was easy to see why, particularly if you, like Gordo, take the time to read the rambling 3,000-word bio on the restaurant’s website; full of terms that the various Confidential editors won’t allow ("delicious", "delight", "dazzling") in our reviews, it doesn’t do the chef, Marc Wilkinson, any favours.
It was several bangers of upper class boffs. The table of four across the way burst out laughing
Particularly when you get to the bit where Wilkinson compares himself to Dali.
Yes, Salvador Dali.
Yet several trusted sources other than Michelin have pushed Gordo to give it a try. After more reading, it started to look, to Gordo, that maybe there was more to this chef than meets the eye. It does turn out that saccharin, he ain’t.
Examining this chef’s background, he seems to have done the hard yards of working his way through the system, from washing up as a teenager (in order to buy a bike) through being trained at a family-run French restaurant in Yorkshire all the way to becoming the head chef at the Mirabelle, in the Grand Hotel at Eastbourne. Not a dainty kitchen by all accounts.
Unlike a certain lunatic chef who will remain nameless, it was only after he knew his basics inside-out that he started to experiment with “modernist cuisine” after a visit to one of Gordo’s favourite restaurants, Pierre Gagnaire in Paris.
Walk in through the front door of this small, smart but welcoming restaurant in Oxton, and the room, along with the staff, gives a warm welcome.
Wilkinson gives diners plenty of space. In fact there are only 14 covers. If Gordo were involved there would be 20.
Anyway, it’s a bit hushed and quiet. The couple on the next table, smartly dressed and in their early 60s, spoke quietly, but with cut glass accents that could slice steel for battleships. It was not difficult to realise they were in the early stages of dating. Miriam was talking about ballet.
The other tables mumbled along in twos and fours, most had started and were on their second or third courses. Gordo was beginning to agree that it was all a bit arsey.
Then, he ate a nut.
This nut told Gordo everything he needed to know about the chef. This meal was going to be brilliant.
It was a pecan nut, by the way. There were seven of them. Baked, one at a time, in Tinkerbelle's oven. She had spent all afternoon painting it with ambrosia, sprinkling it with the spices that she had stolen from an incense-bearing tree in Kubla Khan’s gardens, close to that that sunless sea of his.
Whether or not Gordo or the other guests were up their own arses wasn’t the point.
It was clear that Wilkinson, from this first offering, isn’t.
The front of house comprised two young, engaging, knowledgeable and funny professionals who clearly love what they are doing and hold the chef-patron in great esteem run the service. They know their subject, Wilkinson’s food, intimately. They have, by all accounts, refused all bribes to spill the beans on precisely how those nuts are made.
Three fat olives arrived, along with two large, elegant glasses of Louis Roederer champagne (£10). They were in a bowl with a lid on. Take that off, and smoke wafted out. The olives soaked up aroma, delivering further uniqueness in flavour, matching the Roederer with its biscuit notes.
Then came roasted foam oyster leaves, cockles and lastly mussels; just three porky ones, in half an inch of their own broth, tasting of the harbor wall in Honfleur.
These three dishes came one after another, tasting individually brilliant but all part of a set.
Did Gordo mention the bread and butter? Two different pats of butter, one of them made from goat’s cheese. The bread floated around the table, as if on a slow motion hovercraft. I challenge any restaurant anywhere in the world to do better.
Then a brief interlude, where the best thing all night happened.
Gordo was talking to the maître d’ about the Christmas tree. A couple of tables behind had fallen silent, listening to Gordo quietly going on with himself. The cut-glass accented Miriam was still on about the ballet, this time the Russians, trying to score points.
Then she farted.
Loudly and clearly.
It was several bangers of upper class boffs. The table of four across the way burst out laughing, Lottie Moore nearly wet herself, the Maître d’ just didn’t know what to do and Gordo, always calm in a crisis, simply carried on whingeing about the Christmas tree taking up space.
What seemed like five minutes of silence from the rest of the room was broken by the cut glass bloke.
“I think we’ll just forget about that shall we?
Lottie spat a mussel across the floor. Gordo’s night was well and truly made.
Onwards and upwards.
Artichoke and hen’s egg with crispy chicken skin is marked in Gordo’s notes as the dish of the evening. Sea bass wasn’t too shabby either, whilst the venison was wonderful. Gordo dislikes sous vide cooking with red meat. Apart, that is, from sweet, berry-noted loin of venison, a beast that probably did time in a royal park, gorging all autumn on hedgerow fruits. It was bloody wonderful.
The puddings were overshadowed by all that had come before; they were good, but not great. A pre-dessert was messing about with nitrogen; “a bit too much pussying about”, read Gordo’s notes.
Marc Wilkinson needs to work further here; it seems to be missing texture, maybe he should be working, in deference to his French training, pastry into the set. Modernist cuisine tends to be a bit too refined when it comes to puddings, they aren't big on textures, with too much reliance on sugar. This needs to be more “French”.
Then the cheese is brought out. You chefs looking to win Michelin stars; take a look at this trolley. This is what the inspectors love.
It is one of the four or five best trolleys the Fat One has had in his life, it equals Bocuse in Lyon and Moulin de Mougins, above Cannes, in its heyday 25 years ago.
The Maître d’ went through each of the 25 on offer. We made our choice and they make a very pretty picture.
Some chefs have taken to offering honey with the cheese. Wilkinson offers honey from-the-fucking-honeycomb with the cheese.
In addition to the Roederer, Gordo hovered up a bottle of Latricier Chambertin, a very sexy grand cru red Burgundy, 2002, a 4* vintage just opening out and showing glimpses of red silk panties. Gloriously horny. Wilkinson’s enthusiasm for getting it right shows no bounds, his wine list is exemplary.
He describes his cuisine as “French Contemporary”. His classical French training has stood him in good stead. He doesn’t have an over-reliance on it, but his dalliance with modernist cuisine gives his food an edge that stands the experience somewhat apart from the other Michelin chefs here in the north west.
He isn’t better; just very original and striving to stand out. The Simon Radley complete experience at the Grosvenor, in Chester, is somewhat more luxurious an occasion, whilst Rogan is The Master; but, dear reader, a set menu for dinner at £65 from this feller is worth walking over hot coals for.
The amazing thing, and why there are only 14 covers, is that Wilkinson is in that kitchen on his own. Just a KP helping. Gordo was gobsmacked when he was told. A truly remarkable set up.
I know you guys want to know. Nope, it didn’t smell of roses.
ALL SCORED CONFIDENTIAL REVIEWS ARE IMPARTIAL. Critics dine unannounced and the company picks up the bill
0151 652 2914
1-5: Straight in the dog bowl
6-9: Get the chippy
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