Good things come in threes, so they say. And I reckon those local to this part of West Lancashire will be agreeing. First there was Moor Hall. Then there was its little sister, The Barn. And since last autumn, there’s Solo just down the road. Now, to be honest, it’s an hour’s drive for us to get to Aughton and we might not have come across Solo for a while, but we heard of it via Marc Wilkinson, chef and owner, of the wonderful (but soon to close) Fraiche in Birkenhead. Well, if it’s good enough for Marc to try, it’s certainly good enough for us. A look at the six course tasting menu promised us an exciting evening. Tasting menus are not our preferred way of eating these days – they can be overly long and arduous. But chef, Tim Allen, has crafted one that’s six courses – just long enough to be interesting without being tiresome.
The building was previously a wine bar but originally was one of Aughton’s pubs. And there’s still something of the pub feel, with the table layout and a bar central to the space . But there’s no doubt this is a restaurant – the open kitchen at the far end to where we were seated makes sure of that. There was a warm, friendly welcome and that relaxed, yet experienced, style of service continued throughout the evening.
The menu was dated to the day so, presumably, minor adjustments can be to the plan depending on product supply. There was lovely sourdough to nibble on before the first course arrived. That was a dish of whole tomatoes from nearby Tarleton (food miles – about 12). These had been skilfully cooked, so they were fully tender but retained their shape and, in themselves, were delicious. They came with a sprinkling of what was described as a “truffle curd” (very savoury) and a tomato water that was as much essence of tomato, as you could hope for. Served separately, a small piece of toasted sourdough topped with fat from Iberico ham. Put together, I suppose this was a take on the Spanish pan con tomate and, to my mind, was absolutely great. It may well have been my favourite course, although not my partner’s favourite.
That was followed by a fish dish. Now, if we disagreed over the tomatoes, we were in full agreement about the fish – it was fine, but our least enjoyed, the flavours and textures not full coming together for us. There was well cooked piece of cod – it had the texture maybe of having been cooked sous vide, which is rarely a great idea in our book. There’s cubes of smoked eel (which I reckoned were the best bits on the plate). Shallots cooked in white wine, providing a bit of texture. And another lovely broth, this time with the celery flavour of lovage. All the elements of the dish were fine, but it was just when they were put together that it didn’t really work for us.
Then, my partner’s favourite dish. Agnolotti, filled with spinach. Cooked perfectly al dente and the plate dressed with a Parmesan foam, sweetcorn, and a really rich onion broth (slightly sweet from long cooking of the onions).
The main course featured pork fillet. A generous portion for a tasting menu and cooked just to medium, so still very juicy. For contrast, there’s a little bit of pork belly, topped with popcorn. Very thinly sliced raw courgettes gave a slight crunch and there’s sliced green olives. Almost the star of the plate was a spoonful of basil puree. Vivid green and powerfully flavoured.
We declined an extra course of cheese and went straight for the dessert. First up, buttermilk curds were dressed with cucumber and mint and there’s a delicate thin lime meringue tuile. It was a perfect palate cleanser. And the final course, described on the menu as a “Vanilla Fresher”, brought white chocolate in a crisp coating, finely sliced strawberries from Lemken Nurseries near Preston (food miles – about 15) and a verbena flavoured ice cream.
Coffee was good; brandy flavoured chocolate truffles were even better.
So, all in all, a nice evening. My partner had taken the wine flight, all of which matched the food well, with helpful information about each one coming expertly from Neil. There is, however, one point of criticism. And that’s the gap between courses. I know it’s a fine line when there’s a tasting menu – you don’t want to fill rushed but we thought the kitchen has got this wrong, leaving fifteen to twenty minute breaks between each course, when each is only taking five tops to eat. It makes for a very long evening.