[Oxton, Birkenhead] Fraiche

It’s about a year since we were last at Fraiche and it’s good to see that it remains in the Good Food Guide’s top ten list of UK restaurants – up there with two and three Michelin star places. Since last year, there’s been a couple of changes. Three, I suppose, if you count the rather good background music, played at exactly the right volume so that it does the job in what could otherwise be a rather hushed space, without intruding on conversations. The most noticeable change is that there’s now a kitchen bench in the dining room, where Marc and his sous chef finish off the plating of some dishes, such as the pre-dessert. It all adds to the sense of theatre. This was the sixth time we’ve eaten here since 2008 and the food just keeps getting better and better.

Dining is by way of a no choice six course tasting menu but, with all the amuse bouche, pre–dessert, breads served twice as courses in their own right, you’re pushing well into the teens. To kick off, there’s a single bite barrel of hollowed out carrot, filled with a carrot sorbet. It may be the most carroty carrot thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. Classic flavours of the eastern Mediterranean follow with half a small fig topped with feta and mint.

Smoked salmon was of excellent quality and was well paired with the savoury crunch of almonds. The menu said pineapple was in there as well – although we couldn’t detect more than a vague sweetness which, perhaps surprisingly, also worked.

I can’t recall exactly when the two bread courses were served. They’ve been a part of the meal every time we’ve been here. One course brought four different rolls – the cheese one was outstanding and a dark treacle one was not far behind. The other course came named as “toast and jam”. A lovely bit of fun there, with a slice of toasted brioche and a “jam” of onion, cooked for ages with thyme till it was as sweet as a “proper” jam.

Back to the menu, there was a textures of celeriac dish – puree and a little dice of the veg. Alongside, a couple of fried ceps and a scattering of Parmesan. There’s a fish course next. Fish has always been one of Marc’s strongpoints and this was no exception. Perfectly cooked turbot, with a little very thinly sliced fennel and a Japanese dashi broth. It’s impossible to think how it might have been improved – a 10 out of 10 dish, if ever there was one.

The sous-chef was out in the dining room finishing off the next plate. I could see him with a smoke machine, pumping smoke into bowls and quickly putting a lid on to seal it in. The bowl comes to the table; you lift the lid, your nostrils fill with hay smoke – the sort of smell you might come across in the countryside when farmers burn off the stubble in the fields. . And you look in to see four pink fir apples – two for each of you. They’ve been cooked in miso butter – no, me neither, but these may be the most delicious potatoes ever (I wonder if he uses Jersey Royals in the spring?).

For the final savoury course, there’s duck breast. It’s been cooked to medium rare and then cut into bite sized pieces. My companion in life is no great lover of duck and would never usually order it but reckoned this was the best ever eaten. The accompaniments are bang-on. Tiny beetroot packing an earthiness, sour cherries cutting through the duck fat. Oh, yes, this was a fab plate of food.

At the beginning of your meal, you’re asked if you want to end it with salt or sugar. We both chose sugar. There’s a pre-dessert of a delicately flavoured lemongrass pannacotta. Followed by a “textures of pear” – puree, thin slices, etc. A yuzu dressing brings a lovely citrus flavour to everything. It probably shouldn’t work, but it does.

Now, had we chose to end the meal with salt, we would have expected them to wheel out their cheese trolley, usually stocked with around 20, mainly French, cheeses, for you to pick from. Well, that’s gone now. What we saw other diners get is a more usual plate of pre-selected cheeses. But have they chucked out the trolley itself? No, they haven’t. In what is one of the most fun ideas I can recall in a high end restaurant, they’ve turned it into the petit fours trolley. They wheel it up to the table, as before and invite you to select the nibbles you want to go with your coffee (or let them make the selection). We let the guy decide and, in amongst the ten or so selected for us, there was the usual array of posh mini-bakes but, also, a housemade Jammy Dodger and a Hobnob. They’d only been doing this for about three weeks to try it out but I’m sure other customers are going to like the idea as much as we did.

This had been a faultless evening. The environment, the food, the service – all perfect. The only thing lacking was Marc’s signature “fizzy grapes” which have been part of every previous meal but perhaps it’s time they did have a rest.

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I did enjoy reading this, I could almost taste it all. Thanks for taking the time to write such a vivid review John.

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

― Jonathan Gold