Sunday 8 April 2012

Parkers Arms Good Friday Fish Festival

Good Friday means fish-heavy menus for restaurants in the Ribble Valley, the heart of the Lancashire Catholic recusancy way back when. I'd usually avoid eating out on bank holidays, especially at Easter, a time when not only is everywhere (one hopes) very busy, but a lot of the customers are the type who only eat out on special occasions like Easter Sunday and Mother's Day, meaning that restaurants have to pitch down to such customers.

But a post on twitter from Stosie Madi, the chef at the Parkers Arms at Newton in Bowland, advertising their Good Friday Fish Fest menu, called out like the siren call of Lorelei enticing gastronauts (well, this one) onto the rocks of Newton. £23.50 for the 3-3-3 menu was also very attractive. The only problem with the menu was that it was well nigh impossible to choose. This was, however, solved by the whispered suggestion that they could put it all together as a tasting menu, if we had the time. On the one hand, this solved the problem; on the other there was a certain trepidation at the amount of food we were likely to be facing, even if some of the dishes were going to be reduced in size.

The starting pistol for this marathon was one of my favourites: Muncaster crab parfait with crispbreads.
Muncaster crab parfait
Muncaster crab parfait, Parkers crisp breads
I have had this a few times before at the Parkers Arms. The presentation this time (in the little pot, as you can see) is new, and unfortunately this wasn't the best, as they'd sold out a lunchtime and quickly knocked up a new batch, and mine hadn't quite had long enough to set, and was a little too liquid. But the creamy richness and intense crab flavours were there in force, and it's much better to be a bit runny than overset. One thing that always impresses me at the Parkers Arms is that even a small garnish of watercress, such as came with the crab parfait, is nicely dressed. So many restaurants still omit to dress salad leaves.

Next was a dish which had attracted me when I first saw the menu: herby crispy squid with sweet chilli sauce.
Herbed crispy squid, Parkers sweet chilli sauce
Little baby squid, in a light, remarkably herby crisp crumb. The squid was very tender, and the crumb at once light and crispy. The accompanying sweet chilli sauce was homemade and nicely balanced some fiery chillis with sweetness.  But I wondered if it was really necessary, and whether some herb mayonnaise, or an aioli, might have matched the herby squid better.

The next dish (the last of the starters) was Smoked Dunsop trout risotto and Slaidburn “Scotch egg” wild garlic mayonnaise. I was expecting some trout risotto, topped with a trout Scotch egg for textural contrast and dressed with the wild garlic mayonnaise. So it was a surprise to find that the first two elements were combined into what were effectively trout risotto arancini, with an egg in the middle.
Q: When is a scotch egg not a scotch egg? A: When it's a trout risotto arancino with an egg in the middle.

I'd hope that if I'd ordered this as a starter, that I would have been told it wasnt actually a risotto, as I could see that some might be a little disappointed if they were expecting a risotto. But I liked the re-working and the surprise, though I'm sure the surprise works better in a tasting menu format.  But who could not be won over by that perfectly cooked egg? Just enough trout in the risotto to taste it and all accurately seasoned. The wild garlic mayonnaise would fly off the shelves if it were available to take away.

Our next dish was another play on the words of the menu description: "smoked haddock and Southport shrimp chowder and new season asparagus tart, tossed salad," said the menu.  Would it be a bowl of chowder with a little asparagus tart on the side? Nope.
Smoked haddock and Southport shrimp chowder and new season asparagus tart, tossed salad
This was where culinary madness meets inspired genius. A beautiful 'chowder' topped with some asparagus, and cooked in a tart case with the sort of thin, crackly pastry you would usually only ever find in those lovely little Portuguese custard tarts, pasteis de nata. This was a triumph.  The pastry was utterly delectable, and the filling was just gorgeous: very lightly set, with a baveuse centre, and no one element dominating the others.  In London, this would have bloggers and the twittersphere going mad and long queues round the block.
Here's the money shot of the tart:
Next came something that was a little more straightforward, but no less accomplished in conception or execution.  Some gently, perfectly cooked salmon was the centrepiece, but curiously could easily have been left off without making it any less of a dish.
Confit Loch Duart salmon, Isle of Man queen scallops and broth, braised fennel, wild garlic pappardelle

Alongside the salmon (which looks a little over-cooked in the picture for some reason: it wasn't), some excellent, neatly caramelised queenies, almost unctuous braised fennel and a truly delicious, delicate light cream were, for me, the supporting cast for the real star, some home-made wild garlic pappardelle that was as thin as gossamer silk, yet still had a subtle taste of ramsons.
Gossamer thin wild garlic pappardelle

If this is beginning to sound like it was a set of discrete yet delicious ingredients that just happened to be on a plate together, that wasn't the case: it all worked really well together.

The final main course was a simple classic: lemon sole with beurre noisette.

A really simple preparation and presentation, with nowhere to hide. It was a small sole, yet remarkably plump.  You couldn't criticise either the neatness of the preparation or the spot-on cooking of the fish. The beurre noisette was bang on too. Served with some simple new potatoes, spinach (fully shelled) broad beans and peas. Faultless.  Better than the 3* baby sole starter that I had in the final days of Chez Nico on Park Lane: better fish to start with, and better cooked.

The first dessert to arrive was a very grown-up, adults-only chocolate and espresso trifle.
Dark Chocolate espresso and Kahlua trifle
It sounds heavy, and looks a bit heavy too, but surprised me by being much lighter than I'd expected, helped by really not being very sweet at all.  It made me think of an inverted tiramisu, with the coffee and chocolate to the fore, and a little quenelle of chantilly cream, rather than the mascarpone mix that makes up the main element of tiramisu.

At this point, we waved the white flag, passing on the lemon posset with damson jelly and the cheese.  Well, that was the intention.  The cheese still came, and the posset was packaged up to take away!

The cheese was in good nick, served with some iced grapes and homemade water-biscuits. Who makes their own water biscuits, you might well ask. They're quite different to any you might buy, and much tastier.

All in all a really good lunch which turned into dinner.

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