Sophie, I don't think we're in Pizza Express anymore...
6 minute read
I went to university in Preston. Back then the height of dining was Pizza Express where I remember my friends holding a surprise party for my 20th birthday. I cried over a plate of dough balls whilst wearing a sparkly one-shoulder crop top from Tammy Girl.
I suppose it is curious for a table to be completely devoid of cutlery until course five
This isn’t my first time back since then, but it’s been a minute. Winckley Square and its surrounding streets are still the most interesting part of the city. A Georgian Square, known as ‘Preston’s hidden gem’ lined with period buildings, once home to Preston’s upmarket businesses and schools. It’s here where I find 263. One of the first fine-dining restaurants in the city sits proudly beside the pretty landscaped paths that wind through the square.
It’s a cold night, and we step out of the car to the sound of owls hooting in the trees. The Yorkstone paving is slippery with ice, and away we glide down a small, dark side street to the restaurant. 263 is part of Winckley Square Hotel, tucked away down Camden Place. The front door is so modest and mouse-like that I almost knock before entering.
Oli Martin is Chef Director here. He made a name for himself after a successful eight years as Head Chef at Hipping Hall in Kirkby Lonsdale and a decent stint on Masterchef: The Professionals in which he made a respectable finish as a finalist.
It’s a ten-course tasting menu at 263, all local produce, foraged ingredients and proud Lancastrian heritage. Like me, I read that Oli grew up on the Fylde Coast in Lytham. I think of the fishmongers, butchers and greengrocers that dominated the high street in the 90s. Perhaps a passion was borne from picking up potted shrimps from Lanigans and gazing up at the pheasants hanging above the window.
Back in 2023, a parade of young staff sees to it that we are comfortable, and a well-versed sommelier makes suggestions based on my desire for a fruity Riesling despite the icy weather. The menu is mysteriously cloaked in a wax-sealed envelope and I feel that I am starring in an episode of Taskmaster as I snap it open and pocket the green wax seal like Mel Giedroyc. Onion broth, cheddar gougéres and beef tartare-topped waffles are presented as snacks, followed by shiitake and XO fried buns.
“Psst,” The couple on the table next to us wants our attention. “What do we do with this? Just drink it?” They’re referring to the onion broth served in a glazed pottery thimble. I suppose it is curious for a table to be completely devoid of cutlery until course five. We nod enthusiastically and remark on the depth of flavour.
263’s gougéres are crisp, with the flavour of sharp cheddar bleeding into the pastry. Beef tartare is refreshing, but I find its waffle pedestal cold and stodgy and the fried buns lack the kick of a pungent XO sauce - traditionally made with dried shrimp and scallops.
A basket of warm bread is next, with a ripple of soft, whipped butter and a handy whittled wooden knife. This is our introduction to cutlery at 263, and it does a wonderful job. My family used to say to me, “d’you want some bread with that butter?” And my habits haven’t changed.
Three words on the menu deceive the diner before the next morsel appears. ‘Roasted Potato, Lovage’ is far from a roasted potato, but a bowl of quivering set chawanmushi-style tater-flavoured custard dotted with cubes of eel and compressed apple. It is strange, delicious, funny, and wonderful with small dots of lovage zinging away with the other flavours. I scrape the bowl clean with a real-life spoon.
North Sea pollock and salt-aged beef are traditional in their presentation. One served with creamy caviar sauce and sea veggies, the other with (no doubt) foraged mushrooms, celeriac and a rich sauce. A celebration of our waters, followed closely by another celebration of our earth.
The best dessert I have ever eaten was at Roots in York. A carrot and chicory tiramisu - sweet, creamy and earthy. And the best coffee I have ever sipped was at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans where they still make it with chicory root. All these memories whooshed back to me whilst I devoured ‘Salted Chicory, Coco Nib’ at 263. A real ‘save the best til last’ moment.
They probably don't even realise, but 263 took me on a journey tonight. Through memories of my university days to the salty air of the Fylde Coast. A deep dive into the North Sea, and back over to The Big Easy. I was at first apprehensive about the restaurant, with its bright graffiti artwork hanging on Farrow & Ball painted walls.
I thought perhaps they had tried to shoehorn something uncomfortably modern into a classic space, but I was wrong. This menu’s twists and turns felt tailored to my own life and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Follow Sophie on Instagram @sophieshahla
263 Restaurant 10 Camden Pl, Preston PR1 3JL
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.
Onion broth 7, gougere 8, beef tartare 6, shiitake XO bun 6, roasted potato custard 9, pollock 8, salt aged beef 8, rhubarb 9, chicory & coco nib 9
A very charming young team
Casual with a hint of formality