Moor Hall used to be the best restaurant in the UK. This year, however, the National Restaurant Awards demoted Moor Hall to merely – cough – the best restaurant in England, giving top spot to Gareth Ward’s Ynyshir in that there Wales.
Yeah, it’s hardly a setback, is it? If chef Mark Birchall is wounded by the demotion, a) he doesn’t show it and b) he can always take solace in the two Michelin stars, not to mention the rapidly awarded one Michelin star for sister restaurant The Barn, located just across the garden from Moor Hall.
As for my opinion… well, you’re lucky, you get to read this following some sterling editing and my, er, carefully chosen words. Mr Birchall, on the other hand, had to suffer some unedited, less considered, possibly* slightly tipsy gushing from me at the end of the meal. Mind you, judging by his amused expression and gracious tolerance, I suspect he gets that a lot. Because, frankly, Moor Hall is utterly bloody brilliant.
To the casual observer, Moor Hall is a wonderful, cosseting, thoroughly delicious experience, a tasting menu of big flavours, remarkable subtleties and beautiful presentation, delivered by a team of exceptional, charming, funny and unflappable professionals. To those of us who’ve spent many years in and around the world of hospitality, who like to study the finer details and workings of a restaurant, Moor Hall is all of the above and a well-oiled, exquisite machine.
The pacing of the meal, for example, is wonderful. This is dinner as an event, where you have to fall back into Moor Hall’s experienced arms and resign yourself to three, four hours of culinary pleasures, starting in the bar, moving to the garden, the kitchen, the restaurant and then back to the bar for the petits fours trolley. Yes, trolley.
After a horrendous journey – one of those trips where you’re ticking off the miles yet Waze keeps knocking back your arrival time; so much so, in fact, I’m tempted to call Moor Hall and make sure they’re not being towed further north – we have just enough time to check-in (because Moor Hall is a “restaurant with rooms”), shower, change and make it to the bar at our allotted start time.
Cocktails are selected – the Moor Hall “Champagne” cocktail (their own gin infused with raspberries, peach bitters and Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs) across the table and a Savory Gimlet for me, the titular herb picked from Moor Hall’s kitchen gardens.
And then the snacks – “to begin your Moor Hall journey” – start to arrive. A selection of their own charcuterie. Black pudding, pickled gooseberry in the form of the lightest, richest “puff” imaginable. Alderman peas, chorizo, cornflower, where everything that isn’t a pig has been grown on site, and served as a tartlet of ethereal, summery beauty. Raw mackerel, raspberry, radish, nasturtium. Cod roe, chicken, chervil, caviar. I’ll let you read that ingredients list again because trust me, I don’t have the vocabulary to make sense of it myself but I’m fairly certain my eyes rolled back in pleasure at that one.
I’m still attempting to make sense of chicken, cod roe and caviar when a very nice member of the charming front-of-house team arrives to usher us through to dinner. And when I say “usher” I mean “take us for a gentle stroll through the kitchen garden, and into the remarkably calm kitchen, show us around that a while, point out some of the things that are cooking that will very shortly be served to us, and lead us to our final snack, of smoked eel, potato, fermented garlic and flowers, served on the pass, while we get to chat to Mark Birchall himself.”
It’s a very clever exercise, a beautifully efficient but friendly process that phases diners into the restaurant at roughly 15-minute intervals, around which the team – those FOH legends, the quietly efficient brigade in the aforementioned calm kitchen – move gracefully and easily through the next, er, 11 courses and eight wine matches. If you have even the slightest interest in hospitality, watching an operation like this in full flow is utterly fascinating. Everyone has time with the customers – the waiting staff to explain the intricate dishes in detail, the sommelier to explain the wine matches and stories behind the various vineyards – and everyone knows exactly where each table is on their, to use Moor Hall’s word, journey.
I won’t waffle on (what do you mean “too late?”) about every course, but I will celebrate a couple of them, and a couple of other observations. The turbot – cooked on the bone, with salsify, mussel and roe sauce – is exceptional, ditto a Louët-Feisser oyster, with white beetroot, dill and buttermilk, and the Millbeck Farm Herdwick lamb, with lettuce, anchovy and artichoke ragout, ramson and curd. The turbot is the point I fully realise the confidence in the kitchen. This is not a meal of endlessly big flavours, or combinations that always slap you about the face with their intensity. This is a meal that frequently celebrates the subtle, showcasing the delicate flavours as much as the punchy ones. There are eye-popping moments, and the lamb is, perhaps, the lambiest dish I’ve ever eaten, but dinner at Moor Hall is a multi-dimensional ride that frequently calls on you to stop and appreciate gentler flavours, the quality of the ingredients and of the cooking.
Even better though is the presence of carbs. Unlike other celebrated restaurants I could name (but won’t) where you’re left staring at the gravy of dreams with just a fork to try to scoop it up, Moor Hall are the masters of, essentially, elegant moppy-up bread. If it comes with a sauce/gravy/jus/whatever, chances are it either comes with something amazing to help you wipe the plate clean (in the case of the lamb, it’s a sublime lamb-fat, onion brioche-y thing) or you already have bread on the table. I applaud this fact to our waiter and he just grins, shrugs and says “well, Lancashire, isn’t it?”
What else to add? Four desserts form a splendid journey through palate cleanser to elegant, sweet finish. The petits fours are unnecessary but irresistible. A very nice man in the bar magics up a bottle of magnificent ratafia, a drink I haven’t seen since a trip to Reims a decade ago. Two months on – and many very good meals later – I find my mind wandering back to various elements of that Moor Hall dinner and either sighing or giggling at the memory. Simply superb.
*by which I mean “definitely”.
Moor Hall, Prescot Road, Aughton, Lancashire, L39 6RT, www.moorhall.com
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