Tuesday, 24 June 2014


Apparently it's a real effort to fill an upstairs restaurant. For starters, folk can't have a shufty or a nose when they're ambling past on other affairs. Out of sight, out of mind. No such bother at this joint. Helter Skelter (formerly Oswald's) is Frodsham's self-proclaimed 'gem of a first floor restaurant', a loftily-positioned stalwart that proves location need not be an impediment to success. This is one severely popular place, operated by the same lot in charge of the busy boozer beneath, whose denizens you weave through en route to the upstairs eatery. 

The restaurant's decor lends a new definition to the term 'hotch-potch'. Mismatched would be an understatement. Can't-make-its-mind-up might be another. And, as you settle yourself beneath the manifold wall art straight off the shelves of B&M Bargains, you do kind of wonder what they were thinking. Not that there is anything wrong with the wares of B&M Bargains. I'm often down there amassing armfuls of ridiculously cheap pasta sauce. And the stuff they have for the garden is ace. Rakes, spades, hoes, trellises - all at a fraction of the cost of the better-known outlets. 


They are, in fact, moving into Chester Forum, set to occupy the long-vacated TJ Hughes unit. Should breathe a bit of life into that dilapidated quarter whose endless empty shops are rather redolent of a mouth missing most of its teeth. 

We landed at Helter Skelter one Thursday evening, wrung out from the rigours of a riotously stressful week. It was alarmingly heaving for a week night; full of business-types partaking of solitary sustenance with noggins buried in books and in phones. We eschewed the steak-and-wine offers and plumped for the A la carte, which changes fairly frequently but always incorporates dependable staples of the ilk of pork belly, rump of lamb and fillet of seabass. Now, I've had a few scrans at this establishment over the last couple of years. The fayre has generally been of a decent standard, and the value spot on. A three course meal for two replete with zesty Sauvignon sets you back around £65. Can't really argue, generally speaking. But, wallet-pleasing prices aside, there was something generally lacking on this visit in terms of food quality. 


A starter of Bury black pudding proved one of the most uninspiring, tasteless offerings I've had in a fair while. The menu effusively detailed its accompanying blandishments - crispy potato cake, rich Stilton sauce - but it was thoroughly bland. Quite how they managed to wring every ounce of flavour from that Bury delicacy blows the mind. Accompanying potato cake constituted a rather soggy mush entirely inundated by a moat of sauce that seemingly lacked its eponymous component. Moreover, the colour of the dish - a rather swarthy hue - did little to enhance its appeal. 


Still, you can't go wrong with a main course of pork belly. Pork's the new beef. It's enjoyed a singular resurgence of late. A porcine revival. Fair dues to the pig in its unswerving ability to produce innumerable pink and salty delights on which to feast the eyes and sate the hunger. What would we do without it? But this pork belly was a tad under par. It was burnt a touch. Not carbonised, but a bit blacker in places than it ought to have been. The lumpy sauce which engulfed it - purportedly sage and chorizo - tasted of neither. 

In fact, there was something of the school dinner about the whole. You could be forgiven for thinking that each constituent element - pork, fat chips, green beans, carrots - had been splattered onto the plate by means of a ladle, as dispensed by a beefy sourpuss in a hairnet. The only saving grace was the £13 price tag but, for the sake of being stung for an extra couple of quid, I'd rather have had something decent. To stave off further disappointment, I didn't bother with a dessert. 


You can't help but think that Helter Skelter seems to be resting on its laurels. And, in a way, I can almost understand that. There isn't a great deal of competition, locally, for the position of pre-eminent small-town bistro (save perhaps for the more formal Old Hall on the high street). And, as such, Helter Skelter has something of a monopoly. It exists in a microcosmic part of the world that's criminally starved of mid- to high-end eateries. But there's no denying the place has a rapt audience. It's always abuzz. People like it. They know what to expect. It won't be changing anything soon, that's for sure. In the past, though, its offering has been pretty reliable. It's just a shame that, on this occasion, it fell so short of its former standards. I'd probably give it another shot. One day. But that day may be a long time coming.

Food: ✓✓
Service: ✓✓✓
Ambiance: ✓✓
Value: ✓✓✓
Website: http://www.helter-skelter.co.uk
Phone number: 01928 713883
Tip: Tastecard & Hi Life Diner's Card accepted Sun-Thurs

Helter Skelter on Urbanspoon

Friday, 13 June 2014


It was one of those muggy, sodden afternoons as can so often write off a Saturday, that I alighted at Chester's terminally unprepossessing railway station. Having taken the long route into town on foot, my senses were unexpectedly arrested by the spectacle of a naked drunkard fulminating outside a Brook Street alehouse. The tavern's proprietress was, to her credit, gamely encouraging the stark-bollock bruiser to reacquaint himself with his kit, but her entreaties fell on deaf, sozzled ears. Now that's really not something you expect to see every day. Not on a rainy Saturday in Brook Street. Not anywhere in Chester. At the very least, our unclothed antagonist could have caught his death of cold. And so, it was that event, coupled with the maddening it's-raining-and-yet-it's-uncomfortably-warm weather, that near threatened to set the tone for the rest of the day. Thankfully, all ill omen was pretty soon vanquished by dint of a very hearty, very rustic meal at Chester's most singular Italian venue.


My inaugural visit to La Cantina was racked with hesitancy. I'd heard praise heaped upon it, quite lavishly, in fact. But the lack of a menu on the website put me off a touch. You can't really be rocking up at a joint not knowing what's on offer, can you? Similarly off-putting, the overly waspish (not to mention tediously protracted) management responses to Trip Advisor feedback. Pretty much along the lines of 'Thanks for the feedback, but we really don't what your sort here.' Cripes! A bit full on, is that. You couldn't help but cultivate the notion that they weren't too keen on criticism over at La Cantina. 

My concerns, however, dissolved entirely once I'd actually visited the place. I ate heartily, supped with vigour, and tendered my cherished 20% off voucher from Onion Ring. All was, for a short time, right with the universe. And so, months passed, and a repeat visit seemed inevitable. This time I was compelled by a Tweet advertising a free bottle of vino with your grub. Can't pass up on free wine when it's offered. A crime against nature, that would be.

The restaurant's ambiance is best characterised as elegant-yet-restrained. You kind of feel cocooned from the rather insalubrious end of town in which it's nestled. But despite an incongruous location, La Cantina was busy at the time of our advent. Not packed to the rafters, but pleasantly abuzz. It's an intimate little place. Not exactly formal, but not too relaxed, either. The menu, presented on stapled A4 sheets, comprised a selection of keenly-priced starters. Both Our Lass and I plumped for the sauteed octopus and squid. 

Now, I'm not a massive seafood lover. However, set down before me the chilli and garlic-tossed remnants of a cephalod mollusc of the order Octopoda, and I am as happy as a clam. (No pun intended.) This was a dish that was light and, thankfully, not at all vinegary. (Many of the vinegar-pickled octopus tentacles I've been served elsewhere have been of sufficient acidity to make your North and South pucker and your eyes brim with tears.) The accompanying sauce was flavoursome and, pleasingly, didn't mask the subtle, delicate squid. 


It's a funny thing to talk of a squid as being subtle and delicate. This is, after all, a leviathan which, in its 'colossal' form, is capable of expanding to an eye-watering 14 metres in length, not to mention the armoury of rotating three-way hooks in its possession, that could all but gut a whale. During episodes of the Blue Planet (and other, similar shows in which rare footage of delicious-looking monsters afflicted with abyssal giganticism is shown), I've found myself wondering what the calamari of the Colossal Squid might taste like. Wondrous, would be my guess. And pleasantly salty to boot, from all those deep-sea capers. (Squid and capers. A combination just waiting to be tried.)


Mains materialised in the shape of slow-roasted leg of lamb, marinated in a variety of herbs and accompanied by sauteed potatoes and a pea puree. And bread. And salad, in fact. The dishes at La Cantina aren't exactly cheap (it set me back the best part of £20), but you get a lot of nosh for your nicker. You need a hearty appetite, dining here. Thankfully, the lamb was just the right shade of pink, and as tender as you like. God knows how long it'd been slow-cooking for. Several weeks, if its succulence was anything to go by.


As to dessert. Well, despite the array of Italian staples on show (exotic-sounding flans and so forth), it was a foregone conclusion: it was going to be cheese. It had to cheese. It's always cheese. Well, what arrived wasn't quite what I was expecting. I'm not particularly fond of Scottish oatcakes (whose sandpaper aridity is not too dissimilar to the material with which you would line a budgie's cage), so I wasn't too chuffed to find them befouling my plate in an unsolicited manner. Some of that rustic Italian bread would be far, far better suited to what were, by and large, cheeses of note. The cheeky blue number, a creamy offering, proved the highlight. Similarly, the accompanying chutney was first rate. 


But mozzarella on a cheese board? Well, that is just not right. I'm surprised the other cheeses didn't recoil in horror and inch towards the outer-reaches of the plate, in order to avoid contact with that flavourless, banal, mush-like interloper which has no place anywhere near curds of stature. How it has the temerity to even call itself a cheese is beyond my comprehension. And talk about difficult to spell. I'm getting red squiggly lines all over the show, here. But, as far as blips go, this wasn't a showstopper. I ate around the mozzarella and, in so doing, showed it the effrontery it deserved.

On the whole, this was a very good experience. And the gratis Sauvignon - imbibed in tandem with complimentary, fizzy rose - was as dry and as zesty as you like. If you're looking for a classy alternative to some of the pizza-and-pasta-by-numbers joints that grace Chester's busier streets, then you'd be well advised to give La Cantina, a quirky and endearing Boughton mainstay, a try. It's definitely a bit different. It's a touch undiscovered, even. But, once word gets out, it mightn't stay that way.

Food: ✓✓✓✓
Service: ✓✓✓✓
Ambiance: ✓✓✓
Value: ✓✓✓✓
Website: http://www.lacantinachester.com
Phone number: 01244 401413
Tip: Follow them on Twitter for some excellent offers 

La Cantina on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 3 June 2014


Chester was, in fairness, desperate for a decent Gallic eatery. It veritably ached for one. It was crying out. Not that there's much in the way of the competition, especially after the sudden and unexpected demise of short-lived Cuppin Street bolthole Bouchon last year. What about Chez Jules? You might well ask. Well, that's about as French as tuppence, that place. A quick scan of the menu confirms as much (their Table du Jour boasting Parisian staples such as 'roast pork with an apple compote' and 'grilled seabass with a tomato'. You could almost be strolling down the Champs Elysses, couldn't you?) But that's a conversation best left for another post.


La P'tite France has apparently been relocated from Nottingham and, despite having only been open a clutch of weeks, it's already attracted a legion of admirers. The restaurant's interior is light but cosy and, though initially quiet at the time of our advent two Fridays since, it soon came to throng. There were people dining alone. There were people in large groups. There were people who did actually look French, berets and all. They were vast in numbers. Perhaps that's just the novelty value in action. It might well wear off. Or, perhaps, La P'tite France, with its rakishly-placed apostrophe and convivial ambiance, is offering something a little different from the usual fayre.

And with a crisp Chablis at £21, we were off. First things first. The bread. Baskets of it. It was amazing. And limitless. Just what you get across the channel. Don't ask me what it's called. It wasn't your bog-standard French stick, that's for sure (Chez Jules take note). Some kind of sour dough, I suspect. But I couldn't put money on that. Soon after, a starter of smoked duck salad proved adequate. It was nice enough. The slivers of duck breast were a touch on the fatty side, but it's a duck salad, right? And duck is a fatty meat. What else was I expecting? Our Lass plumped for the escargot. Now she's a dab hand with the snail tongs, her, but she was rather crestfallen to find that the assembly of gastropod molluscs was presented sans la carapace. Our host imparted that serving shell-on snails is now frowned upon by the environmental health. Further, doing so can jeopardise a restaurant's all-important Scores on the Doors rating.


Now, I've seen enough episodes of the Food Inspectors to know that there are certain dishes and ingredients that the titular scrutineers of that programme go apoplectic over. Rarely-cooked burgers being one example. Kidneys and liver being another. So it doesn't surprise me to learn that the hapless snail should have inadvertently slithered into this minefield. This is probably why you don't see steak tartare on the menu anymore. More's the pity, I say. Raw beef bound with a raw egg yolk does wonders for those wishing to shed a couple of pounds quickly (not to mention violently). Where will it all end? Might we soon see the advent of a Meat Police undertaking to banish from the servery the bloody and the blue? A kind of steak-oriented dystopia? Now there's something to send a shudder. Kill me now, please.


Existential musings notwithstanding, a main course of Entrecote Grillee proved a good bet. And nice and rare it was, too. Still alive. Barely showed to the pan. The hefty slab was accompanied by a rich, Roquefort sauce and a pot of hand-cut chips. It must be said, a better bit of rib-eye you'd struggle to get your mitts on in these parts. At £16.90 it was competitively priced, to boot. 

And so to desserts. Well, this was something else. Throughout the evening, I'd been closely eyeing a tray of cheeses that had been surreptitiously doing the rounds between tables. It's always a good idea to have the cheeses on display. Their presence invariably causes one to crave a bit of cheddar, want a wodge of Wensleydale, seek solace in a slice of Stilton. But with this being a French cheeseboard - well, expectations were stratospheric. To be honest, I've always been a bit snotty about French cheeses. They think they're better than our British curds. Brie especially. That is one pompous little upstart. And with no good cause, to my mind. Can it hold a candle to the local delights embodied in Nantwich Blue and Lancashire Blacksticks? Can it heck as like. Nor can a Camembert for that matter. A Saint Marcellin? Possibly.


Well, La P'tite France's cheeseboard almost made me reevaluate my deep seated, long-entrenched anti-French-cheese prejudices. It was otherworldy. And there were no mean slivers either. Full on wedges descended onto the plate one at a time, a little like lifeboats lowered from a mother-ship. Accompanied by the most delectable cherry jam, and more bread, this was the course that elevated the entire evening. I could bore for England as to its virtues. I really could.

And so, best of luck to La P'tite France in its endeavour to foster just a touch of Paris in Bridge Street. I'll be back; if only for the sole cheese board in Chester that could give the Sticky Walnut's a run for its money.

Food: ✓✓✓✓
Service: ✓✓✓✓
Ambiance: ✓✓✓✓✓
Value: ✓✓✓✓
Website: http://www.laptitefrance.co.uk/
Phone number: 01244 401635
Tip: At all costs, go for the cheeseboard 

La P'tite France on Urbanspoon

NORTHWICH, THE HANGING GATE - Decent Scran in Weaverham

The New Moon Pub Company's implicit intent to season the Cheshire plains with higher-end gastropubs was a step closer to completion following its acquisition of long-time Weaverham hovel the Hanging Gate. Following its grand relaunch some 18 months since, the revamped Gate was dogged by problems - not least the  inexpert, neglectful service for which it started to get a bad rep. It was peaks and troughs with this place. You didn't always know what you were going to get. Some nights everything was bob on. Others little short of disastrous. It was all too much down to chance, and that ain't a good thing when you're anticipating a stress-free evening of gluttony. In terms of courting and retaining local custom, the Gate didn't exactly make life easy for itself.

Thankfully, most of those difficulties have been eradicated. Gone are the ill-trained staff. Gone, too, the pea-sized waiting area into which diners were routinely shoehorned (and often forgotten about) prior to being summoned to table. (It's been expanded into a proper bar, far more inviting to non-dining folk who want to pop by and sling a jar down their necks.) And, following several retouches, the menu reads like a what's-what of Proper Northern grub. There are hearty, rustic stews, there are manifold dishes with gravy, there are black pudding-based accouterments. This bill of fare has an identity. 


Now, I've heard it said that Cheshire Cheese is the most venerable in the country. I've also heard it claimed it's one of the more underrated. Call it heresy, but I find it hard to get excited over a wedge of Cheshire. It's a bit like chowing on a block of salt; leaves your North and South bone dry. Doesn't even have the texture of a cheese. It's something you'd do well to position atop a mousetrap to lure a dauntless rodent to its demise. So, it was against this biased backdrop that I ordered the Cheshire Cheese & Pickle Sandwich from the HG's starter menu (I really feel they ought to rename it 'buttie' in keeping with the nomenclature of the Norf, though in actual fact it is neither). What arrived was a triumvirate of deep-fried bonbons, perilously rolling around a wooden board as if vying for freedom. Each was separately seasoned, with attendant herb toast and some class of a homemade chutney.


I'm a bugger for a deep fried cheese. I can't deny it. Is there anything more decadent, more expedient at clogging the arteries? Cheshire or no Cheshire, I had to give it a whirl. The fact that each bonbon packed its own distinct punch (ranging from neutral to quite piquant) lent a novelty to the dish that I hadn't expected. And the sweet chutney served, thankfully, to offset the saltiness.


Main course arrived in the shape of the lofty-sounding 'Five Bar Gate'. Now, I don't know whether the Hanging Gate's proprietors have taken a trip down Chester way to Hickory's Smokehouse Grill (which peddles the most intimidating-looking, colossal burgers known to man), but the eponymous Gate was every inch the tower. Armed with beef brisket, onion rings, a chilli injection (see photo) as well as the ubiquitous Cheshire cheese, this was a man's burger. 

It exuded testosterone. I feel sure it had biceps. In fact, I was a little afraid of it. And, as I gingerly attacked the meaty mountain with stainless steel implements (picking this thing up would've been asking for trouble), I could have sworn its torn bun became twisted in an evil snarl. This was something to be reckoned with. This could given anything in Hickory's armory a sound drubbing. 


But here's the puzzler. The brawny burger was seated on a plank, and yet was accompanied by a miniature jug of gravy. I couldn't figure that. There are too many planks and slates out there these days. Bring back the plate. Let it have a renaissance, a rejuven-'plate'-ion. That aside, that gravy was right proper tasty. There's no point denying that. That was fact. So, at length, I was well relieved to have laid the Five Bar Gate to waste. Despite its bellicose appearance, this was as good a burger as I've had. The brisket was so deftly braised that I didn't even have to chew. It just slid down. And the the fat chips were as good as ever. Accompanying Pinot Noir so cheeky a bouquet that it was near begging for a clout round the chops.


As much as I've always secretly longed to don a hernia belt and frolic with something vaguely approaching abandon, I really couldn't manage a dessert on this occasion. I have had the Eccles Cake offering previously, and this is noted for its lashings of, yes, Cheshire Cheese. That pervasive dairy staple finds its way into everything in the Hanging Gate's oeuvre, sweet or savoury. And I can kind of understand why. Celebrating the local, right? That's what it's about in this day and age. Rightly so, to my mind.

I haven't yet been to any of the other ventures in the New Moon's catalogue, though the one in Kelsall looks mighty appealing, and the enticingly-named Beef and Pudding in Manchester sounds as though it's hitting the right notes.  I think I'll stick with the Hanging Gate for now, butch burgers, Cheshire Cheese and all.

✓✓✓✓ Service: 
✓✓✓ Ambiance: 
✓✓✓ Value: 
Website: http://www.hanginggate.co.uk/
Phone: 01606 853009
Tip: Hi Life diners card accepted on Friday evenings (2 for 1 on 3 courses). 

The Hanging Gate Freehouse & Kitchen on Urbanspoon