[Frankby, Wirral] Stewart Warner at the Hillbark
As you drive up to the Hillbark, you think “Wow. What a lovely well preserved Elizabethan house”. Then you realise it’s all fake. Built in the 1890s somewhere else, it was moved here in the 1920s. Even so, it must be a fantastic venue for the weddings that form the main part of the hotel’s business. But, frankly, we didn’t find it a fantastic venue for an upscale restaurant.
You take your aperitifs and canapés in the faux great hall, complete with faux minstrels gallery. It’s a large, cold, souless space, uncomfortably furnished and utterly devoid of any atmosphere. The dining room, furnished in faux Belle Epoque style, is almost as bad. Perhaps it’d be better on the nights when it’s busy (apparently Saturdays) but with only one other table occupied, it was just a dreary hotel dining room. We were almost thankful for the overly loud background music – although we managed to hear the Michael Buble CD three times.
However, and it is a big however, the food was absolutely faultless and the service was that good combination of being entirely professional, yet relaxed and friendly. Canapes were excellent – a shot glass of fennel soup, a cocktail stick kebab of lovely sweet grilled shrimp, a sardine brandade wrapped in a crisp, and a Kilner jar with smoked (and smoking) crackling.
Shrimp again cropped up in the delicate consommé which formed the amuse. And there was good bread – very good bread. For one starter, a couple of perfectly cooked scallops, a little slow cooked pork, sorrel and almonds provided interesting counterpoints. The other was quail – the breasts and legs served separately and I couldn’t resist picking up the legs to gnaw off every last scrap. Some smoked bacon, breaded squash and a smear of a mild goats cheese. Bang on for my sort of starter.
Mains were both in the style of meat cooked two ways – one long & slow and the other a quick fry. Piggy for me – middle white – the long & slow in the form of a slice of unctuous belly; the quick a delicious chop, just cooked through, with a thick layer of sweet fat and crackling that should provide a masterclass in the art of crackling production. There was also scattering of crisp chorizo and what was described as a “turnip choucroute”, pleasant enough in itself but, to me, lacking the sharpness that you might have expected and from which it would have benefitted. But this is nit-picking. Overall I was eating a superb plate of food.
Across the table, slices of medium rare fillet of longhorn beef. Well, of course, fillet isn’t going to be packed full of flavour, but the accompanying braised oxtail more than made up for it. Pearl barley seemed spot-on for a cold, wet autumn night. And there was roasted parsley root providing a clever garnish.
Up till now, dishes had been explained in meticulous detail. But pre-dessert was set down with the invitation to work out for ourselves what it was. Well, we worked out it was a caramelised sweetcorn pannacotta, topped with popcorn. And let’s say it was more interesting than enjoyable.
For desserts proper, chocolate mousse accompanied by a beetroot parfait. I liked this a lot – the sweet earthiness of the beet worked well with the richness of the chocolate. The other plate was slices of fig poached in red wine with accompaniments nicely leaning towards the Middle East with an almond sorbet and honey ice cream.
And we finished with coffee and really good petit fours.
There was good news and bad news on the wine front. The bad news is that there is nothing inexpensive on the list, nor are there any half bottles. The good news is that they will serve you a glass from any listed bottle for one third of the bottle price, so if there was something really interesting you wanted to try, it wouldn’t break the bank. But, even with restraint in my partner’s selection, her two glasses racked up twenty six quid.
The hotel has the main restaurant "contracted out" and a brasserie type affair which I think is "in house".
The main one was set up by Aiden. He installed Stewart as his head chef. Aiden quickly left the business so Stewart took it over. My guess is there were tensions between Aiden and the hotel. That said, Aiden seems to have a knack of the quick flit. After leaving the Hillbark, he set up a gastropub enterprise nearby but has left that as well and now has a "steak & chips" sort of place in a hotel near Chester. Still got the Church Green at Lymm. But all the rabbit about gaining Michelin stars now seems to be flushed down the bog.
Well worth a punt next time you're in that part of the world.
(BTW, on your recc, we're off to the Butchers Arms for lunch this week)