Meringues like Katy Perry’s nipple tassels: lunch at Northcote

July 21, 2010 § 1 Comment

You know the ones I mean at the end of her fun “California Gurls” pop video feat. Snoop Dogg? Here they are balancing on my strawberry pudding with Kendal mint cake water ice:

So this is what funky head chef Lisa Allen gets up to in her spare time…

After years of thinking about it, I finally made it to Northcote (they’ve quietly dropped the Manor part of the name in an effort to sound up to date I think) in Langho, near Blackburn, Lancashire for lunch with my father Bob and stepmother Kath. It’s about an hour’s drive away which has been the problem all along – a bit too far for a convenient night out and a bit too close for a weekend away. By the way this Northcote is not to be confused with its namesake in Devon some 300 miles away in the SW of England.

A bit of background – Northcote is a small country house hotel founded in 1983. The business is owned 50:50 by chef Nigel Haworth and business partner from the hotel and wine trade Craig Bancroft. The restaurant gained a Michelin star in 1996 and has successfully held on to it ever since. Nigel has become well known throughout the UK in part thanks to regular appearances on BB TV’s “Great British Menu.” New head chef Lisa Allen stepped into Nigel’s shoes (he’s now executive chef) at Northcote 6 years ago aged just 23 and made her Great British Menu début earlier this year.

As you pull into the carpark, you wouldn’t immediately know that there’s anything special about the place. The hotel looks like what it is, a late Victorian gentleman merchant’s residence, comfortable, practical and solid looking rather than drop-dead gorgeous like its Devon namesake.

It soon becomes apparent that this is a slick and well run operation – everything happens smoothly and runs like clockwork. We were shown into the lounge area for drinks and the maître d’ quickly took us through the menu choices. I was delighted to find Lisa’s Great British Menu available in a number of formats as a lunchtime special so all 3 of us opted for that. Decision made. Here it is:

EITHER Levens Hall Wild Rabbit
& Leek Turnover, Piccalilli
Wild Morecambe Bay Seabass, Shrimp Toastie,
Growing Well Tomato, Samphire
Salt Marsh Lamb, Crushed Peas, Woodland Mushrooms,
English Onion and Sweetbread Fritter
Sunny Bank Farm Strawberries, Meringue,
Quiggin’s Kendal Mint Cake Water Ice

I opted for the rabbit turnover, Bob and Kath for the seabass. After drinks in the bar served with the lightest-ever pea mousse with bread crisps as a nibble, we were shown to our table.

The dining room itself is simply decorated in pale colours eschewing the overpowering brocade and dark stained wood look that some of the houses of this period have. I liked the plain white napery, solid cutlery and understated glassware. Nothing too fancy and all of good quality which I suppose is the house style. The ladies’ cloakroom, always a bellwether of whether the management pay attention to detail, was rather lovely in a cosseting kind of way:

The only lapse of good taste was my flashy “lay” plate which seemed at first to be blue and white willow pattern type of decoration but on closer inspection proved to be a faux-aged mugshot of Nigel… Fortunately the lay-plate was soon whisked away and the more aesthetically pleasing starters arrived. Here’s my dinky rabbit turnover with deconstructed piccalilli:

The pastry was crisp and the rabbit fillet within flavoursome and juicy. I was reminded as I ate what a good pickle picalilli is making use of the now sadly out-of-favour cauliflower. I really should make some soon.

Next up was the rack of saltmarsh lamb- a suitably summery dish made by the inclusion of the sweetbread and onion fritter. Delicious with a lipsmacking contrast of textures and flavours. The portion sizes are not too large which is perfect for lunch:

And then the rather glamorous strawberry pudding served in its Eero Arnio bubble-chair bowl on the now obligatory slate. I enjoyed the strawberry elements – a thin layer of jelly on top of strawberry mousse, plus whole fruit, also the textural contrast provided by those naughty little meringues but remain unconvinced about the mint flavour. The problem with mintcake is that it is a very pure mint flavour with all the green herbal elements removed but it is in fact these green herbal flavours that marry best with the strawberries. Having checked my trusty Harold McGee I think it’s the menthol which gives the pure almost medicinal mint flavour which is too predominant in mint cake whereas it’s the various terpenes and pyridines within the spearmint plant which give its fresh leaves their special aroma.

I felt quite starstruck when Lisa came out to meet us afterwards in her chef’s whites and clogs: she’s slender and elfin in appearance with a shock of ash-blonde hair, a bit like a young Annie Lennox. She is also down-to-earth and charming and is clearly passionate about what she does in the kitchen. It was a lovely way to round off our meal, along with the delectable miniature Eccles cakes.

Contact details
Northcote Road, Langho,
Blackburn, Lancs
Tel: 01254 240555
Fax: 01254 246568

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