This weekend saw the closure of Ferran Adrià’s elBulli in Catalunya and the opening of Aiden Byrne British Grill at the 72 roomed, 4* Macdonald Hotel at Craxton Wood, near Chester.
How, you may be thinking, are these two linked? Well, apart from the fact that both chefs have made culinary history, (Aiden, at 22, as the youngest recipient of a Michelin star and Adrià as the winner of the S.Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurant title a record five times) they are not. But, this did get me thinking about the process of choosing a name for a new restaurant.
Based on the French slang term for bulldog, the ‘Bulli’ name dates back to 1964 when the then owner, German physician Hans Schilling, named his grill room and bar in reference to his wife’s pet dogs. Interestingly, Heston claims he still isn’t 100% sure from where he got the name ‘The Fat Duck’ (I’m assuming his wife didn’t keep a rather portly pato as a pet?)
Anyways, back to Aiden Byrne’s British Grill. Perhaps a restaurant has never been more appropriately named for it is ideally placed to bring together the best of British: the Macdonald Hotel group has its origins in Scotland; the restaurant is just a stone’s throw from the excellent salmon and trout fisheries of the River Dee, which forms part of the border between England and Wales and then there is the name Byrne, a popular Irish name (albeit much more prominent in The Republic of Ireland.)
Location and heritage aside, the most British thing about Aiden’s third and latest North West eatery is his cookery, which showcases no-nonsense national favourites using fine regional ingredients. The eponymous restaurant replaces the hotel’s old ‘Garden Room’, which under Aidan and his partner Sarah’s guidance has been stripped of its former chintzy décor and modernised with their trademark royal blue and complementing shades.
The 120 cover dining room and adjoining conservatory takes full advantage of views across some of the hotel’s 27 acres of manicured gardens and Cheshire countryside. The rural location is reflected in the tasteful black and white photographs of farm animals and machinery that adorn its walls. The large aluminium stag’s heads make a bold statement of country pursuits without the macabre watchful eyes that stuffed would ones have, while one stuffs oneself.
And stuff ourselves we did! After being warmly greeted we started with drinks and nibbles in the comfortable bar area - a Selection of dips with warm ciabatta. Of the selection of dips on offer I opted for the Aubergine Caviar and my wife, the Courgette and shallots in balsamic (the Green olive, orange and cardamom tapenade also caught my eye but I decided to save that one for next time.) The dips were deliciously oily and flavoursome but the ‘warm’ ciabatta turned out to be little crostini style toasts - not what we expected but equally tasty having been fried in garlic and rosemary.
We then took our seats in the main dining room and ordered another pre starter, a Selection of breads with accompaniments – served on bespoke ‘Aiden Byrne’ inscribed slates, the accompaniments were unsalted butter, oil and vinegar and delicious Maldon sea salt. I’ve criticised restaurants recently for tending to serve individual little rolls, where the bread to crust ratio is all too often just plain wrong! It was great in that respect to be served thick slices of fresh bread from proper sized loaves with the resulting light and fluffy texture that this affords. My favourite of the breads served was the olive bread. Delicious.
To start, my wife opted for the Linguini with Brancaster crab, chilli, coriander and bok choy - she had eaten a similar dish at Simon Rimmer’s EARLE the previous week but preferred Aiden’s offering, citing the depth of flavour in the sauce as the reason.
For my starter I chose the Mackerel Pâté with pickled cauliflower and soused mackerel – I am a huge fan of this oily fish; in fact my ‘death row meal’ would certainly include Mackerel Nigiri. An interesting fact about the mackerel is that they are known for their fighting ability, and the Byrne clan’s motto is the Latin phrase Certavi et Vici which means, ‘I have fought and conquered’ and Aiden has certainly conquered and mastered this dish; fantastic, perfectly-balanced flavours; all beautifully presented on his bespoke Spode tableware.
With regard to tableware, the tables were well spaced and although formally laid with wine and water glasses, fine cutlery and quality linen napkins, the lack of table cloths helped to the reflect the management’s desire to keep the atmosphere more relaxed and informal than traditional fine dining. This again is reflected in the menu particularly in its sharing platters and ‘homely classics’.
As good as the sharing platters looked, particularly the Grilled wing rib of beef with cèpe and foie gras sauce, smoked bacon lyonnaise and chunky chips and the Fish Platter of Home Smoked salmon; beer battered scampi, roll-mops, peppered mackerel pâté, crisp squid and beetroot cured salmon, my wife and I fancied different dishes.
My wife went for one of her favourites, the Pork Belly from the ‘Homely Classics’ section of the menu, Slow-cooked crisp pork belly with thyme mash, roasted apple and broccoli - which she thoroughly enjoyed.
To make full use of the swanky F.A. Porsche designed Chroma steak knives I decided on steak; a 10 oz Rib eye with Portobello mushrooms, herb butter, beer battered onion rings, chips and watercress salad. Both were perfect; the knife, feeling good in the hand, effortlessly cut through the juicy tender medium-rare steak, expertly cooked on the Josper grill. A nice surprise, not listed on the menu was the accompaniment of a gorgeously glossy Béarnaise sauce.
Looking around the restaurant I was impressed as all dishes seemed to arrive in a timely fashion, appearing fresh and generous, delivered by friendly staff that were keen to create a positive impression on this, their official opening night. The neighbouring table had the Fish and Chips with mushy peas and tartare sauce and Aidan’s Prime 10 oz Beef Burger with blue cheese, crisp onion and straw chips; both these dishes looked impressive.
After all this I was full to bursting but wanting to be able to give my readers a complete picture of the dining experience, I unselfishly decided to try and manage a dessert. It was a warm July evening and I was full, so the light and summery sounding Fruit salad with Pimm’s granite seemed like the obvious choice; but I could not resist the draw of the Sticky toffee pudding with pecan caramel sauce – tasty as this was, my wife’s dessert was even tastier.
My wife cleverly opted for the Triple chocolate mousse with gingerbread and warm cherries – at first she offered me a taste of mousse which was silky smooth and packed with chocolaty flavour; a good mousse. Then I had a bite of her gingerbread… this was simply divine! The nicest gingerbread, if not the nicest dessert I have ever tasted! (Aiden, if you read this, you have to put the recipe in your next book. If I can reproduce that gingerbread at home half as well as it was made at the British Grill, it will still be the best thing I have baked!) Yummy!
All in all, a wonderful meal! Especially when you consider that this was the opening night of a new restaurant; one where Aiden has inherited a complete new kitchen staff and Sarah a whole new front of house team. In any business it is a challenge for new managers to get everyone on board, sharing the same ethos and expectations. From my perspective, the customer’s, Aiden, Sarah and the team at the Macdonald have managed this and should be duly congratulated.
My lasting memory (gingerbread aside) was as on my way across the car park, I took a little peek through the etched Aiden Byrne sign and into the kitchen to see the chef stood at the pass laughing with his new brigade – you see on the TV chefs like Ramsay shouting and swearing and talking about the ‘pressure cooker’ atmosphere of the professional kitchen – so it was heartwarming to see a chef, on what must be an additionally stressful opening night, clearly enjoying what he does with good humour and passion.