The Good Food Guide rates Fraiche as the ninth best restaurant in the UK. They could easily be right. Marc Wilkinson is a culinary genius and I’ve been eating his food from before he got his Michelin star. And, hopefully, will still be eating it when he gets the second star he richly deserves.
It’s a bugger to get a reservation and we’d been trying for months. The restaurant is small but Marc doesn’t even try to fill the space and restricts himself to serving just eight customers on the four nights he opens (he goes up to twelve for Sunday lunch service). Online reservations open at 10am on the 1st of the month for the period three months ahead. Within minutes, you can expect that month to be booked up.
It is a little while since we were last at Fraiche and, in that time, there’s been something of a refurbishment. There’s now a little sitting area where you can take an aperitif. There are big video projections on the two main walls. Marc’s theme at present is “the seasons” and the videos are of autumnal scenes – trees, fallen leaves, a stream. There’s some pleasant background music – loud enough that you can make out the song, not so loud that it’s intrusive. Service has slightly changed. It used to be so stiff but now, there’s still a formality but the two front of house staff feel able to smile at customers and there’s a sense of engagement.
So, to the food. It’s a fixed six course tasting menu. Now, I say six but that’s before the various nibbles are served up. It’s before the two bread courses (each with different butters) – yes, bread is served to be enjoyed as a distinct course. And it’s before a pre-dessert. And there’s two desserts for the price of one. Oh, and petit fours are also served in courses. Take it all into consideration and you’re getting on for 20 offerings.
I can’t recall all the nibbles. One standout was an apple soda – a shot glass with a little apple and apple jelly, topped with apple foam. The starter proper was described on the menu as “Autumn Tree” and was one of those dishes that just make you chuckle. A crafted tree branch (sculpted wood, not a real branch) is placed on the table. It has “stuff” stuck and clipped on to it. Stuff like edible nasturtium leaves and seeded crisps shaped like leaves – you just pick them off and scoff them.
There’s a disc of scallop tartare, topped with a yuzu jelly that’s a lovely representation of the seafood & citrus combo. That’s followed by a butternut squash dish - a puree along with a horseradish crème fraiche
Then it’s on to what some restaurants would probably call “textures of beetroot” but Marc just calls “Beetroot”. There’s a puree, there’s sweet, yet earthy, baby beets. There’s a verjus dressing and slivers of smoked duck which add just a hint of fatty savouriness.
The dish I’ve always enjoyed most at Fraiche is the fish course and tonight was no exception. A small fillet of wild seabass was perfectly cooked. There was a little softened fennel, a little spring onion. And what I think was smoked yoghurt.
That led on to perfectly pink venison loin. There’s bang-on seasonality with celeriac and chard. And artfully crafted potato crisps shaped like leaves.
And then on to dessert. At the beginning of the meal, you’re asked if you want to end with salt or sugar. Salt would have brought a goats curd thingy, followed by a selection from the extensive cheese trolley which, I think from earwigging the presentation to the next table, are all French. We went with sugar. First up, a lemongrass pannacotta topped with a fruit puree. And there was an absolute knockout finale – peanut ice cream, chocolate ganache, topped with strips of an orange jelly. It was an absolute delight.
Now, I say that was the finale but it wasn’t. There was what I think must be Marc’s signature – a bowl of “fizzy” grapes. We’ve had them every time we’ve eaten there.
We ordered coffee and it comes with petit fours. The first three are served separately as courses and then a plate of another four or five are served up.
We’d eaten a menu that was as interesting as it was enjoyable. Real care has been taken to craft the experience. It flowed through the evening with nothing jarring in the flavours. The plates look like works of art. Even the glassware is beautiful – I wondered, half seriously, how I might nick a couple.
We pay the bill. You’re given a copy of the menu and a little bag of housemade muesli (yeah, that was a bit wacky). It had been a pretty much perfect evening. I don’t know what would have improved it. Oh, yes, a minor quibble. If you’re going to take reservations from 7pm, have your front door open at least a couple of minutes before so customers don’t have to hammer on it to be let in. But it is a very minor quibble.