Our first Northcote experience was in 2009, shortly after the then chef, Nigel Haworth, had appeared on the BBC’s Great British Menu. We’ve since fallen out of love with that programme but not with Northcote and we’ve been back every year, sometimes twice in the year. We’ve varied the seasons, with which the menu changes, so it’s never felt in the slightest bit samey. As with other high end restaurants we’ve eaten at in the last couple of years, Northcote has cut back on its menu offerings. Gone is the lengthy tasting menu and gone is the “a la carte”, leaving them with their fixed five course “gourmet” menu. That’s no problem for us as it’s what we’ve always ordered here. It’s always been nicely balanced. The individual portions may seem quite dainty but you go away feeling nicely fed, but not overstuffed. And the food has always had strong roots in the northwest.
There’s a couple of single bite snacks to get you started. A beef tartare taco – the softness of the meat contrasting with the crispness of the mini tortilla. And, if that doesn’t sound very northwestern, then the other one certainly did. Their take on a traditional Lancashire butter pie here refined to Michelin levels – pastry enclosing potato and onion, topped with homemade brown sauce. And there’s bread, as ever including the fab Lancashire cheese bread
For the first proper course, there’s a single scallop (not the plural “scallops” of the online menu description) perfectly cooked, so still a tad opaque, topped with roe. There’s intensely flavoured confit cherry tomatoes and a basil dressing. It’s the sort of dish that you’d happily have a larger portion of as a main course.
Next up, a roast sweetbread, crisp on the outside, soft and silky on the inside, topped with thinly sliced mushroom. A tarragon and caper dressing brings it together without being obtrusive. My companion in life has an aversion to sweetbreads so had asked if there could be an alternative. Yes, there can be. It comes from the vegetarian version of the menu and is described as a mushroom pillow – a large tortellino, filled with wild mushroom, served with the same dressing as the other dish. Both are lovely.
Cod forms the basis of a fish course. A spot-on bit of cooking which has the flesh falling apart in big flakes. A couple of mussels provide a bit of contrast. And there’s a tiny, crisp “cigar” filled with something smoky, salty and entirely delicious, even if I can’t recall what it was. A whey based broth is poured over by the server, with a spoon thoughtfully provided along with your knife and fork. You really wouldn’t want to miss any of it.
The final savoury course features guinea fowl breast. And they make a very flavoursome sausage out of the leg meat. There’s baby turnip helping your “five a day”. And a scattering of slices of very sharp fermented gooseberry, which I suspect not everyone thinks works with the mild flavour of the poultry (but I definitely do).
Dessert is perfect for high summer. Really sweet sliced strawberries contrasted with sharp yoghurt, made sharper by the citrus from yuzu and sorrel. Congratulations to the pasrty chef for getting the sweet/sour balance exactly right.
Coffee and petit fours are included in the £115 price tag and both are good.
Service has always been good at Northcote but was exemplary this time, in dealing with an issue. The party on the next table to us (two couples) were very loud. Not rowdy but all four of them just had those very loud voices, that intrude on everyone else around them, even when they were just having what, I’m sure, to them felt like a normal conversation. By our second course, it was really irritating – we couldnt properly hear each other speak – but heard every word of the other party. At one point, I actually removed my hearing aid as the noise was physically uncomfortable. We were just deciding whether or not to ask to be moved to another table or put up with it, when the sommelier came to us and asked if we were “OK here”. It was done without any fuss and, within seconds, we were reseated on the other side of the room (where you could actually still make out some of their conversation – yes, they were that loud). He, and his management colleague, were obviously aware of the noise and were alert to dealing with it. So, by their prompt action, our evening was rescued and, I suppose, there was no impact on the other table who I’m sure were completely unaware of the disruption they were causing.
It’s a rare occasion for us, even at Michelin level, to say that food was absolutely faultless. This was.