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While there are more than enough restaurants in London to keep even the keenest epicurean more than happy on occasion it’s nice to leave the bright lights behind and make a special trip somewhere special for rest, relaxation and country air. I’ve long been a fan of the food being cooked out of the kitchens at Northcote with dishes from now managing director Nigel Haworth and head chef Lisa Allen seen on shows like The Great British Menu looking delicious enough to have me add it to the list and finally make the trip up to Blackburn to have a nice long weekend and celebrate 3 years with my fantastic girlfriend Ella.
We took a Friday off work and took the train up to Blackburn changing at Preston – you need to take a taxi either way (£20 from Preston, £10 from Blackburn) so if we were to go again I would suggest just getting off at Preston opposed to getting the connecting train. We were welcomed with a warm hello and promptly shown to our room which was cozy and had a VERY lavish bathroom with added mood lights. We overlooked the restaurant gardens and Lancashire countryside which unfortunately was shrouded in fog but that will teach us for going in April! The entertainment on site is a little limited – there is a kitchen garden which at the time was full of seedlings, a small bar which has a great whisky selection and some good local beers and rooms have a TV with Sky Sports and a DVD player which meant we could catch up with Game of Thrones. If that kinda stuff doesn’t float your boat I suggest bringing a car.
As we were there for the weekend we got to sample 2 tasting menus – one ‘small’ 5 gourmet menu and the full blown 7 course chefs tasting, and either of those could be boosted by an extra course with the option of cheese; it’s very fair to say that we were very well fed as we got back into the train to London on the Sunday. All the ingredients used tasted super fresh with I’m guessing the majority of the vegetables being picked that day in the house gardens assortment of green houses, we talk about food miles being an important thing but here we’re literally talking food meters. While we had 12 different plates ahead of us the amuse and pre-starter were the same both nights and featured a double beetroot hit with crisp cubes and a creamy sorbet again adding to the list of successful beetroot dishes I’ve had.
It would take far too many words (and alas there are still a lot), exclamations and superlatives to explains all the food I had so I suggest taking a look at the photos; everything tasted at least as good as it looked but on the gourmet menu the real stand-outs were the final 3 dishes of foragers soup, beef loin and bitter chocolate tea-cake. While it might sound rather basic the depth of flavours coming from the soup of foraged greens (what greens we couldn’t quite work out, and we heard a different list mentioned at each table who asked) really knocking me back as to quite how good it was; a cheese dumpling was on hand to add a bit of soft texture and salt and if there were more provided I could have happily munched it down in one; instead it required a lot of restraint not to.
Having been bowled over by the vegetarian soup the meat course of beef loin, beef tartar and oxtail put all thoughts of vegetarianism out of my head. Served perfectly pink and sat on top a mini stash of oxtail and mushrooms the beef could be cut with a spoon and packed a gorgeous flavour. Considering we ALSO had a mini chunk of bone marrow and some perfectly textured tartar we could have potentially have gone with a bit less salt but that could be the only criticism I had of this dish; some people may have said it was a bit ‘too big’ as even for me the prospect of eating cheese after polishing the plate off was a step too far but that’s as close to spiting hairs as I’m willing to go – if the food is good then it’s better having too much than too little I say.
The dessert had nostalgia in the form of a chocolate dusted Tunnocks tea-cake but if nostalgia isn’t your thing there was also a bowl of sweet-treats coming with it – marmalade ice-cream, booze-soaked Jamaican ginger cake AND Darjeeling ice-cream along with some chocolate drops and blood orange sauce. It was a lot of ingredients to get right as a full bowls worth but individually they all tasted rather fine – the rich ice cream bringing everything together on the spoon and confirming that I had no space left for any cheese.
The 7 course tasting menu was far less rich – meaning that there was indeed room for the additional cheese course though by no means less decadent. The carnivore in me was pleased to have achieved a meat hat-trick of beef, pork AND lamb in the same meal. The beef tartar introduced to us the night before was given center stage as the opening dish and served more traditionally with a quails egg yolk, some toast, game chips and horseradish cream – as before the quality of beef was sublime and backed up well with the sharp capers and onion with some additional strength if needed coming from the horseradish.
Sticking out like rather a sore thumb in between all the traditional English inspired dishes was one called shrimp porridge – a Northcote twist on the dish made famous by Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck with snails (one that wasn’t on the menu when I dined there). As I hadn’t had the original I didn’t have much to base it on other than it not tasting anything like the porridge I grew up eating; and of all the flavours on the plate the only one that really stood out was that of raw spring onion. I couldn’t say that I disliked it but amongst all the other perfectly cooked dishes that came our way it stood out for unfortunately the wrong reasons.
Continuing with out meats a perfectly cooked fillet and cheek of pork couldn’t have been supplemented any better by a opulent and devilish red chorizo and barley risotto – with a slight Spanish taste coming from the chorizo it was a subtle nod to Europe from a menu that was very much based in the British Isles. While not coming in the form of a hotpot the belly and loin of lamb was one of the simpler dishes (‘just’ your meat, red cabbage, potato and carrot puree) but probably the tastiest red meat course with the sweet lamb going perfectly on a fork with a bit of the earthy cabbage and buttery/crisp potato being as close to a hotpot as you can get without it actually being one.
Surprisingly the star of the show for me was a perfectly cooked piece of john dory that when paired with some salty ham, smoked onion and an earthy chervil soup. It seemed to hit each of my taste-buds individually as it was joyously devoured; I can’t remember a time where I have been quite as excited with a bit of fish that wasn’t battered and devoured after a heavy drinking session.
I went to Northcote hoping for a relaxing weekend in the countryside with a few special meals to remember the even more special occasion by and this expectation was certainly met. The food is refined yet hearty, generous, comforting and most importantly delicious with the Lancashire area providing some of the best produce around. Forget all the talk of it being grim up north as even on a foggy and dank weekend the Northcote experience provided a sunny glow in my stomach like it was on a beach in Barbados.Tweet