[Birkenhead] Fraiche

Marc Wilkinson never lets us down. In ten years of eating his food, I don’t think there’s ever been a duff dish. It’s always interesting, modern, creative food – food you want to eat. Of course, with any fixed multi-course tasting menu there’s dishes you like better than others but everything is always perfectly executed. It tastes great and it look good too – art on a plate, if you will. And the food isn’t the only arty thing about Fraiche. There’s giant video screens with seasonal scenes (and, in a nod to the dessert we were going to eat later, there’s clips from Willy Wonka). There’s glass artwork on the walls and the glassware on the tables, some individually made, are artistic in themselves. On our last couple of trips, Marc’s had a sous chef to help out but he was cooking on his own this time. He’s supported by someone doing the washing up and two front of house staff. Everyone grafts all evening. The menu doesn’t give much away. Only four courses listed – starter, fish, meat, dessert – but you know with Marc that’s just the main building blocks. There will be more. Everything comes together to make Fraiche the 14th best restaurant in the country, according to the Good Food Guide. And I wouldn’t argue with that for one minute.

There’s snacks with a drink. Spiced pecans and thin slices of wagyu salami. A shot glass of rhubarb bitters – those of a certain age thought the taste reminiscent of Lovehearts (in a good way). A disc of avocado mousse topped with a black vinegar caramel.

Mackerel tartare was an absolute belter of an opener. This was a mix of cubes of mackerel, apple and cucumber – light and fresh. There’s a bit of texture from squid ink crisps. A dish simply called “onions” is the listed starter. Grilled onion with onion jam (and, no doubt, some other oniony bits I’ve forgotten). There’s a bit of truffle, parmesan mousse and another very thin crisp, this time of bread. And speaking of bread, Marc serves it as a course in itself. Three types along with a single estate olive oil and a Glucestershire farm butter.

Next up is an egg yolk cooked, I think, as a confit so it’s set but still soft. It’s covered by an artichoke mousse which includes a nice bit of crunch from hazelnuts. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Fraiche without thinking that the fish course was the best thing I’ve eaten in the evening and it was no different on this trip. Brill was, erm, brill. Perfectly cooked and sat on a little white asparagus, it came in a yuzu sauce which gave a sharpness as you might get from a squeeze of lemon but a little sweeter. Really good and enhanced further with a few shreds of monksbeard (which Google tells me is only around for about five weeks of the year).

I had to Google the main course of “presa iberica”. It’s a shoulder cut from the Pata Negra pig (the beast that makes the absolute best Serrano ham). It comes soft and deliciously tender. I reckoned the only way to get it like that was cooking it sous vide, so I asked just to confirm my suspicions. “We don’t do sous vide” was the answer. In which case, what a credit to Marc’s skill. Accompaniments were bang on – grilled hispi cabbage, a couple of morelles, a little boudin noir and a creamy sauce (in which I think I detected just a tiny bit of mustard).

If Fraiche has a signature dish , it’s “fizzy grapes”. They’ve been served everytime we’ve been, except in 2016, and it was nice to see them again. They are what they say. And a delight if you’ve never come across them before. There’s then a bit of culinary wizardry at the table. On a spoon, there’s a little bit of brik pastry, topped with homemade lemon curd. It’s topped with aerated cream, frozen in a bath of liquid nitrogen which spills smoke across the table. And there you are – Fraiche’s take on the lemon meringue pie in a single mouthful. Absolutely bloody lovely!

I’m not coconut’s biggest fan but even I scoffed all of the next dessert. In the bottom of a little bowl, some cubes of mango or similar, topped with a coconut foam and finished with shreds of coconut.

And then there’s a chocolate and banana dish. No, I wouldn’t have ordered such a combination if I’d seen it on a menu. There’s a banana parfait, topped with powdered speculoos, alongside a chocolate mousse. It’s rich but not overly sweet.

To finish, there was excellent coffee and petit fours. And, after we’d paid the bill and got our coats on, a final thing – a takeaway cup of perhaps the best hot chocolate I can recall drinking.

What a great evening.

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I am distraught!

No, I’m not exaggerating. I really am upset.

I’ve just heard that Fraiche has closed. Apparently the lease has come to an end and the building is up for sale.

We’ve been eating there a couple of times a year since 2008 - before Marc Wilkinson got his Michelin stay and back in the day when we both used to play on egullet. Apparently all is not lost as he hopes to reopen in new premises some time next year. Fingers crossed it works.

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Sorry to hear that. I can relate completely to how you feel - one of my fave restaurants here in Penang has also closed suddenly. But unlike Marc Wilkinson, the owners of Vkusno Dom have no plans to resurrect their wonderful eatery. :sob:

I can see why it’s a loss for you, Peter. Anywhere that served that plate of chicken shashlik would be on my “regular visit” list.

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I am now the opposite!!!

Fraiche has reopened - and we have a reservation secured for next month. In spite of what Marc told me about a move, he is still in his original spot in Birkenhead. And, apparently, has taken the opportunity of the closure (and presumably new deal with the landlord) to do a refurbishment of the space.

Things must still be a tad chaotic. He usually opens up reservations on the first of the month for three months ahead. However, his whole website, including the online reservation system, is down due to a virus so it was down to good old fashioned phoning this morning. We spent the best part of an hour constantly redialling before we could get through.

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Well, any refurb that’s been done is pretty minimal and it feels like nothing has changed. It’s still a no choice tasting menu, cooked immaculately and served with relaxed style and professionalism. We gave a deep sigh of relief.

While you’re having an aperitif, there’s snacks to be had. A raspberry and verbena shot was a sign that, whilst Marc may have had a few months break, he’s lost none of his touch. There’s sweetness from the raspberry perfectly matched by a citrus hit from the verbena. There’s also spiced nuts, a buttermilk and trout roe rice cracker, cheese marshmallow and, perhaps best of the lot, a smoked eel sandwich.

Once at the table, we checked that, as before, there are only eight covers in the restaurant, with seven bums on seats. It’s probably as many as Marc can deal with on his own in the kitchen. For a first course there was diced watermelon. I can still remember our first meal at Fraiche, eleven years ago, when it was also watermelon to start. Then it was mixed with raw tuna so you couldn’t really tell which was which until it went into your mouth. Now, there’s cubes of salty feta and a whack from basil. Smoked salmon follows, in a light dashi broth, with a crunch from small dice of cucumber. Bread was served round about now – four different ones – the fennel one being a stunner, IMO

Next up, a set parsley cream was topped with thinly sliced raw (?) scallop and a shaving of truffle. Then a more assertively flavoured “textures of artichoke” dish – sliced raw Jerusalem artichoke, an ice cream, a crisp and, probably, other preparations that I’ve forgotten. For contrast there sweetness from a passion fruit jelly and crunch from hazelnut. It all works really well. Sea trout had been lightly cooked – I think I recall Marc doesn’t use a sous vide machine so I guess this had just been poached. It comes with a squid ink cracker, salty samphire and a lovely passion fruit mayo. On every single previous visit to Fraiche, the fish has been over favourite course and, at this point, it was the front runner.

The final savoury course was an intricate preparation of Cumbrian lamb. There’s a slice of perfectly pink loin (?) and some long cooked breast. There’s also classic French lamb accompaniments – black olives in the form of a crisp, shallot, tomato and aubergine.

Pre-dessert was a knockout combination of yuzu, orange and a little background hint of liquorice. Texture was more than a foam but less than a mousse. It’s really good. At the beginning of the meal, you’re asked whether you want to end it with “salt or sugar”. Salt gets you cheese. Sugar gets you a dessert which proved to be the best course of the evening – and it’s rare that we would say that. It’s another “textures” thing – this time of exceptionally flavoured Gariguette strawberries. They sit on a shortbread (?) tart and there’s fresh berries, marinated ones, a gel and an ice cream as well as a coconut meringue crisp.

Coffee was good although somehow during their closure the espresso machine went missing, so we had to settle for a cafetiere. Petit fours were excellent. It had been a lovely evening when we “oooh and ahh’d” over the food several times. And then it was off into the night having, in truth, paid a bill that was remarkably good value for this quality. Oh yes, and there’s a little pack of homemade hobnobs to take away just in case we get peckish on the hour’s drive home.

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The closure for so many weeks has caused Michelin to withdraw its star from Fraiche. Fingers crossed it gets it back next year.

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“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold