Cheshire Life Luncheon - The Dining Room, Hillbark Hotel, Frankby, Wirral
- Credit: Archant
Our food writer predicted two years ago that Hillbark’s chef, Stewart Warner, was one to watch. This Cheshire Life luncheon at the award-winning Wirral hotel proves him right. WORDS BY RAY KING. PHOTOGRAPHY BY KIRSTY THOMPSON
The last time the Hillbark Hotel hosted a Cheshire Life luncheon – in the spring of 2011 - head chef Stewart Warner was a relative newcomer at the helm of the kitchen brigade.
But his was a culinary performance so impressive that I wrote in these pages afterwards: ‘Judging by the brio and sheer audacity of his Cheshire Life luncheon menu, all I can say is: “watch this space”’. Well, in two short years, that ‘space’ has been deservedly filled by Stewart and his team winning a coveted third AA Rosette for the Hillbark – placing the restaurant in the nation’s top ten per cent.
And the hotel itself now boasts five AA stars, the only one in Merseyside to do so and the smallest in the country, with just 18 bedrooms, to be accorded the stellar quintet. Small but beautifully formed...by shipping tycoon Sir Ernest Royden’s decision in 1931 to move soap magnate Robert Hudson’s stunning mansion, Bidston Court, beam by beam, brick by brick, several miles so he may enjoy views over the Dee estuary.
Of course the Hillbark’s current owners Craig and Lisa Baker – their Contessa Hotel Group also embraces the Leverhulme in Ellesmere Port – had the confidence in their new head chef to rebrand the hotel’s famous Yellow Room Restaurant as Stewart Warner at the Hillbark from the outset. Never one to rest on his laurels, Craig told me, when Cheshire Life guests returned to the Hillbark for their May 2013 luncheon, that his aim was five red stars for the hotel – ‘and we’re gunning for a fourth Rosette.’ Well, Stewart has time on his side, he’s still only 29.
Guests gathered in Hillbark’s galleried great hall with its stunning 1527 Jacobean fireplace, said to have come from a house of Sir Walter Raleigh, stained glass windows by William Morris, and a pair of church screen doors dating from the 13th century. Soap or ships, no expense was spared to make a home from home, so it’s not difficult to imagine why Hillbark, with this magnificent backdrop, hosts some 150 weddings a year. It’s a room to make anyone feel special, not least while sipping delicious sparkling French Crémant de Limoux, nibbling beautiful canapés and listening to resident pianist Graham Peters while anticipating lunch by Stewart Warner.
The dining room at Hillbark is a picture of elegance with its Robert Adam fire surround of 1795, opulent gilded Louis XV armchairs upholstered in embossed velvet arranged around generously spaced tables dressed with the finest linens, crystal and china. Truly a setting for a memorable lunch; and it was just that.
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We began with a delightful amuse bouche of asparagus soup served in a dainty teacup with a black pudding coquette and some of the most fantastic breads – olive tapenade and poppy seed treats. The starter proper, ‘Asparagus’ – the menu descriptions were giving little away – comprised an exquisite arrangement of young green asparagus in truffle oil and white shoots done in butter around an unctuously creamy slow-cooked egg yolk. Crushed hazelnuts and asparagus foam added extra dimensions of flavour and texture.
The white wine, a fresh, peachy unoaked chardonnay from Aimery, producers of the welcoming sparkler in the Languedoc, provided the ideal foil for the richness of the starter.
The main course, simply labelled ‘Venison’ was sublime. Two fabulously tender slices of venison, its subtle gaminess given a sensational woodland twist from being cooked over pine needles, were accompanied by a ‘sausage’ of confit venison intricately wound with potato string, textures of onion and a wonderful savoury granola. The dish was an object lesson in how to make the extraordinarily complex look simple. The red wine was a noble partner: Rosso di Montalcino 2004 from the heart of Tuscany – 100 per cent sangiovese delivering rich, dark cherries, hints of prune and subtle spice.
Dessert was another work of culinary magic with utterly delicious moist rum cake paired with salted banana, cashews and lime. Elements of all Stewart Warner’s dishes we enjoyed at the luncheon are included in the Hillbark’s new spring menu.
Cheshire Life Luncheon Menu
Aimery Chardonnay NV, Vin de Pays d’Oc, France
Donatella Cinalli Colombino Rosso di Montalcino 2004, Italy
The Dining Room, Hillbark Hotel, Royden Park, Frankby, Wirral, Cheshire CH48 1NP. Tel: 0151 625 2400.
Stewart Warner @ Hillbark: Open for Lunch, Afternoon Tea and Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday. Lunch: 12.00 till 3.00pm; Afternoon Tea: 3.00 till 5.00pm; Dinner: 7.00 - 10.00pm.
Lunch: Two courses from £18, three courses from £23. A la carte three course menu from £60; eight course tasting menus from £80.