Olivia Potts appreciates grace and style in a north Manchester bistro
The Pearl is the newest addition to Prestwich’s high street. It has been set up by Sam Taylor who, after losing his job in the pandemic, began SanSan, a Prestwich-based sandwich shop, and now, with a little crowd-funding help, has turned his attention to a full restaurant, with Princess Street hotel, The Alan’s, former head chef, Iain Thomas in the kitchen.
The Pearl is indisputably charming
It styles itself as a ‘British dining room’, but there’s plenty of French influence here too: aesthetically, it looks like a traditional bistro, boasting only a handful of tables and decorated with rich blues and greens, and half-height net curtains, while on the menu there are mosaic terrines, omelette Arnold Bennett and classical sauces done properly. It is chic but comfortable, and feels like it’s been here forever.
But, Francophilia to one side, local sourcing is clearly of real importance. The menu reads like a road map of the North West: apples and beetroot bear a Stockport postcode, honey a Bury postcode, the rhubarb in the duck dish comes from Iain’s allotment, and the cheesboard’s chutney is from a community garden project nearby; even the garnishing nasturtiums are called out as coming from Warrington. These things matter when you’re opening up a new neighbourhood restaurant, and it’s exciting to see The Pearl taking them so seriously.
The menu is broken down into snacks, starters, mains and puddings and – praise the Lord – follows that structure, rather than dishes ‘coming to the table when they’re ready.’
The snacks are exactly as they should be: crunchy, moreish bits and bobs that make you excited for what’s to follow, and want to drink more wine.
The Pearl’s ‘chips’ – layered potatoes sandwiched with slow-cooked oxtail, dabs of dill pickle and dots of French’s mustard – are neat as a pin (see main picture above). The distinctive zap of the French's is particularly good; just a touch more seasoning would bring the whole thing to life, but even so they are pretty damn good.
A teetering pile of deep-fried, anchovies waft lemon towards us as the dish is set down; the local beer batter is impossible crisp and light, and the anchovies themselves plump, sweet and salty.
The omelette Arnold Bennett is a dreamy, creamy delight: softly scrambled egg on the base, generous chunks of luscious haddock, and a suitably rich sauce laden with Yorkshire pecorino, gently bronzed.
The chicken terrine is another classic done well, perfectly smooth parfait, with gorgeous, tender brioche. These are textbook French cookery standards.
Roast Shetland cod with confit chicken, clam sauce and Exmoor caviar is a beautiful dish. The cod is good, the sauce is very good, but the chicken is excellent, compressed thigh meat, in a perfect little rectangle, perched jauntily on the cod with the crispest, lushest skin.
Initially we wonder whether the sauce should be thicker, creamier, but actually its lightness – deliberately split and beautifully polka dotted with an emerald green oil – is its strength. It pulls the dish together without dominating, and the clams at the bottom of the (very welcome) extra pan of sauce demand to be spooned straight into the mouth. As well as being technically impressive, this is smart, thoughtful cooking.
But the dish of the night is the hay-baked duck, served with rhubarb and purple sprouting broccoli. The duck is so deeply flavoured, smokey and earthy, cooked to the perfect blush, that it makes you double-take to taste it. Exceptionally good.
I am slightly less sold on the puddings. The idea of the tea and biscuits is lovely, with a baked custard served in an old-fashioned tea cup, and custard cream biscuits on the accompanying saucer.
Some elements of the execution sing: the earl grey custard is surprisingly but pleasingly bittersweet, and the biscuits melt in the mouth. But the delicacy of the china in which they are served (and presumably cooked), means that while the centre of the custard is platonically smooth, the edges and top are a little coarser. The earl grey gel that sits on top is unsweetened which makes it taste a little two-dimensional, and the biscuits lack a whack of custardy vanilla for the proper Proustian rush.
The ‘cheesecake’ is made up of crumbled hobnobs, figs poached in English champagne, a punchily cheesy cream cheese, and a more muted fig leaf cream. All the elements are perfectly lovely, but I return to my usual gripe: is a deconstructed classic ever better, more cohesive, than the classic itself?
The Pearl is indisputably charming: from its cerulean exterior, to its suggested Calvados digestif. I love its unabashed celebration of classical French cooking combined with its conscientious, very British, very North-Western sourcing. There is an understated elegance here, as is befitting a place called The Pearl, but also a real warmth and sense of character. It feels like it’s sat on this stretch of Bury New Road for decades – hopefully it will do.
About the writer
Olivia won the Fortnum and Mason Debut Food Book of the Year in 2020, as well as Guild of Food Writers Food Writer of the year. She also writes Spectator Life's Vintage Chef column for The Spectator magazine. She has two books in print, A Half Baked Idea and Butter: A Celebration.
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Given the above, this is how we score: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: sigh and shake your head, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: nothing's that good is it?
Bread and whey fat butter 7 Pearl chips 6 Anchovies 8 Omelette Arnold Bennett 8 Chicken terrine 7 Shetland cod 7.5 Hay-baked duck 9 Tea and biscuits 5 ‘Cheesecake’ 6
Warm and attentive
The exact bustling, softly lit, conversation-flooded setting that you would want to a neighbourhood bistro