Sunday 30 October 2011

Andrew Pern at The Freemasons

On 25th October 2011, Andrew Pern of the renowned Star at Harome in north east Yorkshire came over to the Ribble Valley to launch game week at the Freemasons at Wiswell, home for the last few years to the elevated cuisine of young chef Steve Smith, with a menu of game in the style of The Star at Harome.

I think the first thing to say is that this is not a review of The Freemasons at Wiswell, nor of the Star at Harome. (You can read my review of the Star at Harome by clicking here.) While they're far from uncommon, guest chef nights like this never show either the restaurant or the guesting chef at their best. It needs an incredibly strong kitchen brigade to adapt to a new boss for the night, cooking unfamiliar food, often in unfamiliar ways. Here, Andrew Pern was, I believe, on his own with the backup only of Steve Smith's brigade, none of his own.

For that reason, I'm often in two minds about such events. You don't see the best. You are not getting the experience of the guest chef's restaurant. Invariably, they're also always very slow to get started. On the one hand, this can be the result of the kitchen simply needing longer to get up to speed, but also, as kickoff approaches, there's schmoozing to be done.

Sadly, despite some excellent food, the most remarkable thing that lingers in the memory about this meal was the slowness of service. Billed as a 7 for 7.30 start, we were seated promptly, and were able to review the really good menu, which was - to be honest - what really attracted us to the evening, rather than it being Andrew Pern per se. Though it is, of course, an indicator of how attractive Pern's menus are.
£75 (wine-pairings another £30 for those not driving)

Canapés came out in several waves, with a complimentary glass of 2008 Juvé y Camps Rosé Cava, that was a little too like fizzy, watery Ribena for my taste.

The canapés were good, rather than great: the best were the shot glasses of "Bullshot" - a deeply flavoured  consommé with a real kick of presumably vodka. I couldn't quite work out whether it was a game consommé base or beef, as unfortunately I couldn't drink too much of it, due to driving.
Carpaccio of deer and mallard sausage roll
A carpaccio of deer and smoked trout with a fennel and apple remoulade was a really good combination, which I very much enjoyed, but it was marred by the over thick oat(?) biscuit on which it was served, which really did nothing apart from sap flavour from the venison and remoulade.  As these were seated canapés, it really didn't need anything to support it.  The mallard and mixed peel sausage rolls were tasty enough, but in the shadow of the carpaccio.

The starter was the punning "Salade Pérnigourdine" of Red-legged Partridge, Autumn Truffles and Locally Foraged Wild Mushrooms, Sticky Game Syrup

Salade Pérnigourdine
A generous portion, with both a breast and a confit (or at least well-roast) leg of partridge with a goodly number of chanterelles and a fried quails egg.  Although there was just one slice of truffle, its aroma was immediately noticeable when the plates were brought to the table, and unusually also carried a good flavour. The leg was lovely, with a good deep flavour. The breast on my plate was cooked distinctly rare, so much so that I think somebody had forgotten to turn it during the cooking process: the fillet was almost a bit of partridge sashimi.  Other plates had much better cooked (well, actually cooked) breasts, so this was obviously a kitchen error.  I seriously thought about sending it back, but a) I'm tough and b) we'd waited so long for this first course to arrive, I didn't want to risk delaying service still further.  Despite being so undercooked, I thought it was still a good flavour and overall I really enjoyed this dish: a clever combination and a clever name. And I say that as somebody who finds most puns severely groan-worthy.

Not sending my partridge back was clearly a good decision, as the delay for the next course was really far too long.  Even more surprising given that it was a dish that merely required plating, with no (further) cooking required.

Terrine of smoked pheasant, savoy cabbage and beetroot with walnut and quince dressing
The terrine was billed as Home Smoked Harome Shot Pheasant with Savoy Cabbage and Beetroot, Walnut and Quince Dressing.  The Savoy cabbage wasn't especially evident, in contrast to the two beetroots which I felt rather dominated the terrine.  Separating the pheasant out, it was nicely, gently cooked, very subtly smoked.  Unusually for a smoked bird, it greatly benefited from a bit of salt.  I think if the amount of beetroot had been halved, then this would have been a much better dish.  I have to admit that I didn't really get the "dressing" - pieces of quince and walnut do not make a dressing in my mind.

Yet another long wait for the next course, and again a rather puzzling delay, as it was essentially a soup, though, assuming it wasn't water-bathed,  the slice of pigeon breast in each demitasse would have to be cooked à la minute.

Chestnut and lentil soup 

The menu described this as Wood Pigeon, Chestnut and Lentil Broth with Sourdough Bread.  I really enjoyed this, though its billing with Wood Pigeon headlining rather disingenuously overestimated the importance of the pigeon in the dish.  It is also worth mentioning that the cutlery provided for this course was a small teaspoon: the slice of pigeon was just a bit big for a single mouthful.  I am increasingly irritated by chefs who do not properly consider how a dish is eaten at table by customers, though this was very far from the worst example of this sort of mismatch I've come across.
The pigeon was perfectly cooked, and very tender. The broth was utterly gorgeous: deeply flavoured with a rich, velvety texture, thankfully avoiding the grainy-floury texture that chestnuts can sometimes lend to dishes like this.

Now we really noticed the delay.  We had started at 7.30 and when we looked at our watches, we saw it was gone 10:20 and we were still waiting for main courses.  Fortunately in a rural setting like Wiswell (a tiny village in the Ribble Valley), nobody is reliant on public transport: in a more urban setting, I think a number of diners might have started to become rather nervous by this point.  I'm also not convinced that it's appropriate on a Tuesday night, when most people have to be at work in the morning.

Anyway, when it arrived, we got some beautiful venison, in less convincing company: Fallow Deer - Roast Saddle with Homemade Juniper Sausage, Wensleydale-creamed Cavolo Nero, Baked Plum 'Tatin', Green Ginger Wine Juices.  From the description alone, you can tell that this is not 'less is more' dish.

Saddle of fallow deer with juniper sausage

The venison was perfect, and while initially uncertain about the cabbage, I quickly grew to appreciate it in combination with the venison and the sauce. I didn't really detect much of the ginger wine in what seemed to me just a very good stock based sauce, but wasn't overly concerned by that. But the other two elements seriously let down the dish. The juniper "sausage" was a mousseline, presumably chicken, not overly-flavoured with juniper, though that may be down to mine being ... how shall we put this ... hmm ... a little over-browned? The plum tatin should have worked.  I'm not sure what the inverted commas around 'Tatin' on the menu were about: it was a tatin.  Unfortunately, it had been put in the sauce on the plate, and had been there for sufficently long enough before it came to the table, that it was a baked plum on a very sorry messy of soggy pastry.  If they'd left the pastry out, there'd be nothing to complain about, as the plum worked well.  Mine wasn't the only plate that went back with a lump of soggy dough on it.

Thankfully, things sped up a little now and at ten past eleven, dessert arrived and took us back to excellence.  I'm far from a fan of chocolate desserts (I find them a little heavy at the end of a meal) and whisky is not my drink, so wasn't particularly looking forward to Dark Chocolate and Famous Grouse Whisky Mousse, 'Singing' Johnnie' Sorbet, Hazelnut Peat.  But this was very well conceived and executed.  The whisky was in the form of a light jelly, the mousse just right, and the sorbet actually just a very good raspberry sorbet.  I asked what Singing Johnnies had to do with it, but nobody seemed to know.  The peat seemed to be a dark caramel hazelnut brittle, partly ground up, partly a shard on top: it added just the right note of texture without making the dish any heavier.

Coffee was the usual good coffee that the Freemasons produces, though I thought the accompanying pates de fruits could have been a little less set, and contrary to all expectations we actually managed to leave on the same day we arrived.

This was a meal with ups and downs, though the most serious down was the slowness of service.  I don't know whether that was the result of a problem in the kitchen, unfamiliarity of the kitchen brigade with the chef and the style of food, or not quite managing to pull off a banquet style service, or some other reason. I can't believe it was by design.

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