Visited 31st July 2017
One year since Jan (Mrs Cheoff) and I celebrated our Ruby Wedding we wanted to share another special time together… with someone else doing most of the hard work. A team currently holding the ultimate accolade for hotels seemed a good idea and we managed to book a Gourmet Break at Northcote on the day of our 41st anniversary.
From the moment we arrived at reception we were greeted and looked after by a succession of the sort of people who you desperately hope will still be there for your next visit. Hospitality is an industry but when it is run like this you think that you are being indulged by new friends who only have others’ comfort and pleasure in mind. And here you fall into the delicious belief that everything has been laid on just for you. If any of the Northcote staff read this it will be the very first they know of our anniversary. No need to ask for special treatment. You will get it as a matter of course. I only mention some of the team by name here since I happened to take mental note. Many others must remain anonymous. Named or not, they were all great.
Room 11, one of the Superior Double Rooms, has generous space and a great view over the terrace, the new kitchen gardens and the Ribble Valley in the distance. Zooming in on the Google Maps satellite view will show you Northcote as a sprawling building site. Don’t be alarmed. That picture was taken long before the renovations and extensions were completed.
Booking in and settling into our room we began to see both the traditional and contemporary elements which make up Northcote. A reassuringly solid old-fashioned balustrade climbs against a modern wallpaper backdrop. Narrower nineteenth century passages open onto lighter contemporary spaces. You will not be challenged by jangling modernity though. Carefully chosen colours, materials and textures create calm amid the sophistication of up-to-date designs.
Returning downstairs we wandered around the building and grounds. We really didn’t explore quite as much as we could have but that does give us a clever excuse to visit again soon, doesn’t it? Chris Dilks, House Manager, introduced himself and chatted easily and enthusiastically about Northcote. Having identified our love of growing fresh produce, he encouraged us to enjoy the newly laid out vegetable, herb and fruit beds and to seek out head gardener Phil for a chat.
GOURMET MENU WITH MATCHED WINES
Time for our evening meal. We were greeted again by Chris in the bar lounge. We took small sips of chilled, skin-on, stewed Bramley apples with a hint of yeasty crumble… OK, this was Louis Roederer champagne, a half bottle included with our meal. And just the job to start our evening celebration. Canapés came and were rather wonderful. Beetroot meringue with beetroot purée and goat cheese was a lovely concept, perfectly executed. If I ask you to think of those pork balls which come with sweet and sour sauce from a Chinese (British Chinese) takeaway you have a poor image of our second offering. Poor, because the kitchen had elevated the idea to piggy perfection. The pork was tender and succulent and lovely crisp tendrils of batter imitated light-as-a-feather pork crackling, encasing each bite.
I felt reasonably familiar with the menu, having studied it online. My descriptions here must not be relied on completely. I have most things right but clarity of purpose from a very professional kitchen is always liable to challenge and confuse someone like me who is just a very keen cook and eater. That clarity and the ability to express it with confidence and panache came straight from the kitchen with each course and any misunderstandings are all my own.
I gave up taking photographs of food in restaurants some time ago. The equipment and fuss needed has always seemed an intrusion. There are pictures of our particular menu available on Northcote’s website and Twitter feed. These are the pictures I have used with permission in this review. In answer to your question… yes, they are rather stunning and were produced by Allen Markey.
For the first time ever we decided to take a ‘wine flight’ and put our trust in the Northcote Gourmet Menu Wine Package. Anyone who knows even very little about wine (me?!) will recognise the wonderful research, knowledge and understanding which lies behind one of the most impressive cellars in the country. I was glad to relax without fretting over choices. There were some changes from the printed wines but all those served became an integral part of our enjoyment of the meal. Head Sommelier, Tamas Czinki talked us through each one with perfectly judged detail and enthusiasm. We renewed acquaintance with a couple of trusted favourites and were given surprise and delight by the other four.
We were treated to an amuse bouche. This was a modification from the Seasonal Lunch Menu.
Goats Curd Brulée, Organic Garden Peas and Broad Beans, Radish, Flowers, Brioche Wafers
No flowers or wafers for us since this was necessarily stripped back and smaller. The impact was still big. The curd served as a savoury, mildly tangy custard. Green, white and crimson garden elements tasted every bit as good and fresh as they looked. ‘Pretty as a picture’ could apply to this and most of the following dishes described – please take that as read so I can avoid repetition.
Our server was already proving to have a fine understanding of the food being presented to us. I was sure that the brulée crust had very little sweetness to it and Jack immediately knew that sugar had been replaced by maltose. With supplies left over from a recently made dessert, I am sure that I’ll be attempting my own version of this soon.
Sweet Summer Tomatoes, Nasturtium, Garden Crumpet
Wine: Classic Rosé, Massaya, Bekaa Valley, 2014
Tomatoes have appeared on most of the menus we have been offered lately. There is complete justification for this when the ingredient is given the care and respect which this dish received. Peeled and lightly cooked or warmed, red, green and golden tomatoes gave up their juices to support a peppery nasturtium oil. All this gave us a small, swirly visual reminder of the time when the Mathmos lava lamp was almost brand new and Jan and I had just met. The crumpet was good enough but suffered by comparison with the perfect example which we had very recently experienced. I can only respectfully suggest that the Northcote kitchen make a pilgrimage to 'Pernshire' to check out how to achieve complete crumpet mastery!
No need for a big-hitting red from Château Musar here but we might have imagined that a pink from Lebanon would suffer by comparison. This one stood up and politely corrected us for thinking so. A lovely, balanced foil for the acidity and sweetness of the tomatoes.
English Veal Liver, Onions & Thyme
Wine: Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Kessler, Domaines Schlumberger, 2014
Liver and onions. A classic. And yet we have all had horrific offerings of ruined, grainy meat, I’m sure. With such a delicate piece of offal here it is a matter of seconds between success and disaster. But this kitchen delivers with confidence. A wonderfully caramelised surface crust gave way to a silky, soft, almost liquid centre. Rich, sweet onions and onion purée along with slivers of mildly pickled baby onion did nothing except add to the triumph. The notes of thyme gave a fresh herby hit courtesy of the garden which was just visible through the dining room window.
Gewurztraminer was far too sweet on the first mouthful. But from then on my reservations disappeared. It all made sense as it added an indulgent, almost child-like playfulness to the dish. It completed what was just – only just - the standout course for me.
Jan does not like liver. All was sorted with a phone call before arrival and a lovely substitute was made available.
Podded Peas, Home Made Jersey Curd, Rose Oil (served with Pea and Mint Tea)
Wine: Sake, Ikekame, Red Turtle, Junmai Daiginjo, Japan, NV
Jan’s appreciative expressions (visual and audible) made it clear that she had gone to a pea paradise to match my heavenly liver. No sake we’d previously tried has had the depth, balance and interest of the ‘Red Turtle’. And yet it still did not fight with such a delicate dish of food.
John Dory, Clams, Bramley Apple, Bacon
Wine: Kyperounda, Troodos Petritis, Cyprus, 2014
Clams were replaced by caviar on the night. Salty notes from this were restrained as were those from sea vegetables and cured meat. I'm fairly sure that an oyster emulsion was involved. Even though the fish came from deeper seas the whole course suggested the safety, comfort and pleasure of a dip in a rock pool.
The wine was terrific. Exotic fruits are reined in to give a balanced fresh partner to the soft salinity of the fish dish. I reckon it would go nicely with my courgette carbonara as well.
Smoked Rare Breed Pork, Barbecue Peach, Pickled Carrots
Wine: Moulin au Vent, Château du Moulin au Vent, Beaujolais, France, 2014
Lots going on here. I fully appreciate the work that goes into such a dish but it proved to be less wonderful than any of the others. I enjoyed the big contrasts between sweet peach, bitter-sweet black garlic and sour carrot. The carrot top pesto was a nice show of respect to the gardening team with all their efforts being valued rather than wasted.
We have been thoroughly spoilt for the last four years with the opening of a wonderful butchers just three hundred metres from our door. This has given us access to great produce from free range pigs and revived our interest in the quality and flavour available from pork. That could have been why our expectations for the star turn of our main were not met. The meat lacked the tender succulence hoped for and the flavour was overwhelmed by other elements. Our taste buds had been worked hard but any hint of smoking was lost. Preparation, finish and flavour seemed lacking here. I must remind you that we had already been treated to so many truly wonderful things. But Jan and I agreed that, for execution and plating, this was the one that 'got away'.
* Two quick points:
'Free range' is definitely worth seeking out... and is not quite the same as 'Outdoor bred'.
You will pay more for free range. If you don't taste the difference... consider ignoring my advice!
'Strawberry Shortcake'', Elderflower
Wine: Moscato, Innocent Bystander, Victoria, 2015
We certainly finished on a high note. It's very probable that I would have passed this over on a menu with other choices. So it was essentially forced on me. I really should give in more often if the equal of this is going to arrive. Those paper thin shards of something which imitates shortcake were sprinkled with mint dust. The dehydrated strawberry slices were packed with a boiled sweet fruitiness and cracked delightfully before dissolving all too soon.
The rest of this dessert arrives hidden and I have no intention of spoiling the surprises within. All I will say is that the flavours, textures and subtle temperature variations combine to give interest right until the last wistful spoonful. Wonderfully conceived and executed.
The pink fizz was ridiculous. With a crown cap and a mere five and a half per cent alcohol content, it gave no real warning of its qualities. All was frivolous distraction from red fruits, sweetness and chill. Not chilled enough to prevent it kicking up its heels and frothing like a cancan dancer all through our dessert.
What a perfect finish!
We understood that Lisa Goodwin-Allen, Executive Head Chef was supervising in the kitchen. It goes without saying that her part in the design of our menu and the brigade’s skill in delivering it to us receive our huge thanks. There... I’ve said it anyway.
Quite the stuff of dreams. Except I don't remember any after a sound sleep in a large, comfortable bed.
After waking, we found enough room for breakfast, choosing cheese soufflé and Finnan haddock as 'mains'. Even a fusspot wouldn't struggle to find something from the morning selection. It was rather good to make those choices and have them brought by full table service and to enjoy meeting more Northcote staff. Craig Jackson, General Manager and rising star, was among these and we continued our chat at reception as we checked out. I collected a couple of lovely pre-ordered books which lay in wait behind the desk and we reluctantly said our goodbyes.
Northcote is founded on many elements. Passion and a striving for excellence suggest themselves strongly. There are definite outbreaks of #Obsession and I'm sure a spot of hard-nosed business is dealt with out of sight. On our first visit we were surrounded and impressed by the luxury of a beautifully designed environment. The food was just about faultless but what left their real marks were the friendly, caring people we met and the skills, food and services they provided. Which left us with the over-riding feeling that Northcote is at heart like the marriage which Jan and I continue to celebrate... a labour of love.