Gordo reckons Rogan's protégé, Mark Birchall, has just gone one better
Let’s begin with what Gordo didn’t like about Moor Hall. Not much. Though that Hen of the Woods is an evil little sod. It’s a mushroom normally "foraged" by new-age fellas with scraggly red beards, bad acne and holes in their underpants.
This abomination was partnered with a slab of roast chicken breast which winked at Gordo. Placed in front of Grumpy’s wing woman, Deanna Thomas, it seemed to be trying to distance itself from the mushroom. It was moist, cooked to the French point and not massacred by dry heat. The skin was crisp, with chickeny fat that had been encouraged to gently seep away. Flavour was left draped over the plump juicy meat like a black silky negligee across the perfect, pale breasts of a Swedish movie actress. Maud Adams, stepping out of Octopussy, had caressed Gordo’s cheek and whispered sweet nothings into his ear... then that fucking hen burst onto the scene like one of Roger Moore’s eyebrows.
Right, let's talk about the whole experience.
Mark Birchall - the ex-head chef at Simon Rogan’s multi-award winning, two Michelin starred L’Enclume up in south Cumbria - is now chef-patron of this remarkable restaurant with rooms.
Even if the food here had been unremarkable, this place would surely be busy on location alone. A large, Grade II-listed manor house in Aughton, near Ormskirk, it’s in acres of ground that will shortly boast its own dairy (seems Birchall doesn't like other people churning his butter). His backers and co-owners, the Bells, have certainly not scrimped on the investment.
Some would argue that Birchall was the man responsible for winning and maintaining the second star at L’Enclume.
Having trained at the three star El Celler de Can Roca in Girona (twice voted the best restaurant in the world), he went on to win the prestigious Roux scholarship in 2011. The Roca brothers have had a big impact on Mark Birchall and Moor Hall is benefiting from the experience.
There will eventually be a second more "accessible" restaurant in the stables, while round the back sits a market garden that takes advantage of Lancashire soil that has been producing some of the best vegetables in Europe. Birchall, too, is taking full advantage.
The interior has kept its heritage, with the original dark wood of the manor house giving off an air of assuredness. A glass of the house champagne and a bold statement from a small, curled up strip of creamy ham settled Gordo in. The champagne from Henri Giraud, a small house, had a nose that reminded Fatty of passing the McVities biscuit factory on Stockport Road, on his way to see his Gran. A lovely old-fashioned soft bubbled gem.
Walking into the dining room, which is housed in the modern new wing, you can see the Rogan-esque eye for mid-century Danish furniture. Some could be cruel and liken it to a craft centre up in Cartmel, but when you sit down in a super comfy chair and take in the sheer theatre of the room, peeping through into a quietly buzzing kitchen, you begin to realise that there’s magic in the air.
What followed were 13 courses, which were supposed to be eight. Gordo could give you chapter and verse on all of them, however all are scored below (few fall below ten out of ten).
Deanna, who is far better on detail than Grumpy, has been invited to give her three-pence worth below.
I have a signed menu on my wall at home from a visit to l’Enclume years ago. But it’s not Simon Rogan’s signature, the scrawl is that of Mark Birchall - head chef at the two Michelin starred restaurant for over a decade. So the news that he was to open his own restaurant caused such excitement that I begged to go along for a pre-opening tour.
When I visited in January it was all hard hats and builders, holes, mud and exposed pipework. What a difference a mere ten weeks made as I accompanied Gordo for the restaurant's first lunchtime service in mid-April (although they’d been serving dinner for six weeks).
It was an oasis of calm from the ornate (and original) wood panelled reception hall, to the comfortable bar lounge and the almost futuristic modernity of the dining room and open kitchen. Of the three different length tasting menus, Gordo, naturally, chose the longest of eight courses – although with canapés, bread, cheese and coffee, our five hour lunch encompassed double that amount.
I’ve given up worrying about whether this sounds pretentious, but a meal at this level is comparable to some kind of high-brow artistic performance. Think a beloved piece of classical music with familiar rhythms, magical harmonies, dramatic pauses and loud rousing bits. Every course - each the sum of a dozen or more parts and processes – has been designed as part of the meal as a whole. To isolate them would change the experience, which makes it difficult to extract a favourite course. Some dishes had me utterly flummoxed as to how they were made and others tapped into some kind of personal nostalgia as we reached into our memory for familiar tastes... was that corned beef... and that, erm, Quavers?
Among a parade of courses that stayed with me for days afterwards, I was most taken with one of the desserts: "Honey beer, Bramley apple, aged caramel and marigold". On a compressed square of layered, sliced apple sat a crispy golden pastry basket (phyllo, brik, ouraka?) filled with what our server described as "apple mead rocks".
As absolutely everything is made on the premises (including salted, whipped butter and an Alpine-style cheese Birchall has been maturing for 14 months) I can only assume that he had produced his own fermented honey booze before incorporating it into semi-soft frozen nuggets of parfait. Chilled apple puree, fresh marigold leaves and a slightly tart, almost vinagered, caramel drizzle dressed the plate. It was a triumph of balance; hot, cold, soft, crunchy, achingly sweet and subtly bitter.
So was it good, or was it great? Neither. It was genius. You can see the pedigree in the dishes, and you, dear reader, having checked out the photos, will see what Gordo means if you are familiar with Rogan and his chefs.
One particular dish, the aged beef in charcoal, has made the journey up north from Girona in Birchall’s suitcase, carefully upgraded along the way. Here at Moor Hall, it sang. A thing of great beauty with clear, definitive flavours, all of which are deeply, madly, ridiculously in love with each other. Masterful.
Four surprise starters: black pudding with pickled apple; smoked curd with potato, fermented garlic and flowers; raw mackerel with radish, purslane and nasturtium; and, finally, oyster with cured ham, dill and buttermilk.
All four, one after another, took us both completely by surprise. They were a huge statement and one after another scored ten out of ten. Each had a point of difference, each had one clear, bright burst of flavour - like a mini super-nova surrounded by a genius, but not jostling, cast of supporting flavours and textures. These were designed, like great Japanese food, to be popped whole into the mouth. Don't mess about.
The service is outstanding. These guys know their stuff, as well as being delightfully personable. They haven't been schooled in scripts. None of that “and how’s your day been so far?” We were taken through each of the following eight courses in brief detail.
At one point Birchall swirls out of the kitchen to sprinkle a finishing touch of Doddington cheese to baked carrots (see video). Gordo isn't sure whether or not Birchall likes this bit; he seems more comfortable keeping an eagle eye on his team. But it’s a good opportunity for us punters to see the man responsible.
Deanna's favourite, honey beer, is a triumph. But a special mention is required for a ginger ice cream affair of such gingery, spicy, creamy, deep flavour it left Gordo in a pile on the floor.
Next the cheese. Gordo is off to South West France next week, to the three star Eugenie Les Bain to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his favourite chef, Michel Guerard, being in the business. The Fat One ate the cheeseboard there for the first time 33 years ago, and the last time a couple of years ago with his pal, Howard Sharrock. Until now, Gordo rated it as the best cheese experience in the world. It is now the second best. Birchall has built a dedicated cheese room, where you go and select your cheese. The result is an entirely British cheese course - a remarkable thing. Our cheese has now come of age and, curated properly, beats France easy.
The wine here is very accessible as regards price point and has enjoyed a good deal of time spent on it by a few knowledgeable individuals. The difficulty with a list of dishes like these is to match a bottle to it. The guys do wine flights but Fatty is always a bit suspicious of them; more than three styles and they begin to blur (unless in a formal tasting). Some places also take the piss when it comes to value. But here, a very good riesling as a starter glass, then a fabulous bottle of a classic light premier cru red Burgundy did the job (Gordo is somewhat ashamed as he has lost his notes, and as he writes this the restaurant is closed with no wine list published on the website - he will do better next time).
At £95 for the eight course menu, it’s not cheap. But you don’t have to do the marathon because there are two other menus, one at £35 and another at £65. Though if you do go big, Gordo recommends you put aside four hours.
Moor Hall, Prescot Rd, Aughton, Ormskirk L39 6RT. Tel: 01695 572511
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)
Black Pudding 10, Curd 10, Mackerel 10, Oyster 10, Carrots 9, Crab and Asparagus 10, Beef 10, Scallop 10, Brill 10, Chicken 9, Lamb 10, Rhubarb 9, Ginger 10, Honey Beer 10, Bread and Butter 10, Cheese 10 (we're afraid our tech doesn't allow for quarter marks, or else the food would have scored a near perfect 9.75)
An oasis of refined calm