Restaurant review - Riverhill Hotel & Restaurant, Oxton, Birkenhead
The arrival at this Oxton hotel restaurant of the first female winner of BBC's Masterchef has created a recipe for success. But if you want to sample Claire Lara's expertise, you'll need to book early REVIEW BY RAY KING
Take one popular Wirral hotel restaurant with a loyal band of customers, add the winner of a top-rated television cookery series to head up its kitchen and you have a recipe for a packed house virtually every night.
So it was then, at the second attempt (there were no tables available on the Friday), that we fetched up at the Riverhill Hotel and Restaurant in the charming Birkenhead suburb of Oxton on a buzzing Tuesday night, having secured the last table for two through booking a week earlier.
The star turn in the Riverhill’s kitchen is Claire Lara who in 2010 became the first female winner of BBC Television’s MasterChef: The Professionals. Michel Roux Jnr, the exacting, two-Michelin starred programme judge, said of her:‘I think she’s the most complete chef that I’ve come across.
Not just in the MasterChef context, but anywhere, in the last five years. ‘She just goes to show that if you do put your mind to it, it can be done. We started off the competition looking for a talent and we have uncovered a diamond...she has that exceptional talent that will take her to stardom.’
Praise indeed for Claire, now 31 and a mother-of-one, who has returned to her Wirral roots by running, with her husband Marc, the first restaurant she ever worked in. Together with hotel owner Nick Burn the couple have put together a new menu celebrating local produce. It’s a joy to behold first rate ingredients being allowed expression in a range of dishes that cry out to be eaten and enjoyed rather than be admired for their epicurean experimentation.
At the Riverhill that’s a very good call, for it seemed evident in the packed bar of what’s essentially a suburban neighbourhood rendezvous rather than a blingy city centre restaurant, that the loyal clientele are not culinary revolutionaries; nor are Mrs K and I.
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The bar with its low tables, comfortable couches and colourful photographic views of Abersoch and Llanbedrog on North Wales’ Cheshire’s Riviera, is a pleasant place to peruse the menu before being shown into the neatly appointed dining room (actually a series of interconnecting spaces) with tables properly naped with linen and glinting glassware. The presence of a sweet trolley and formally suited and booted waiters provide something of a retro atmosphere, but the presentation of the dishes was bang up-to-date.
I started with pan-seared wood pigeon with crispy smoked bacon, pickled beetroot and early spring leaves (�8.95), a classic combination where the deliciously rich flavour of the pigeon, dense and served pink, worked in complete harmony with the saltiness of the pancetta and the sweet-sour taste of the beetroot.
Claire won MasterChef by serving pigeon as a main course; this dish was billing and cooing, too. Mrs K began with deftly fashioned and delightfully presented beignets of cod and crab (�8.25) with a fine complimentary tartar sauce and mixed leaves. Freshly fried and with an excellent texture, the dish delivered a lovely balance of fish and herb flavours.
For the main course I chose the thinking man’s surf and turf. Forget that weird combination of steak and lobster so beloved of pretentious American restaurants, this was a fantastic pairing of slow cooked pork belly and pan-seared king scallops (�19.95), complemented perfectly by the savoury pepperiness of black pudding and the sweet touch of cubed cider apples.
The scallops, fleshy and delicately flavoured made an exceptional marriage with the succulent, meltingly tender pork; ingredients of tip top quality shown highly skilled respect and arranged beautifully on the plate. Mrs K had pan-roasted Gressingham duck breast with carrot pur�e and fondant potato (�18.95) and though the duck was done just a tad beyond the pink requested, it was spot on for flavour and deliciously tender. We shared a side dish of thick-cut chips (�1.95) which were a real treat.
The delights of the sweet trolley were on mouth-watering display: it was laden with treats of huge meringues like clouds, traditional trifle, cheesecake, spectacular millefeuille with kiwi and strawberries all of which come at �5.50 a portion.
Mrs K enjoyed a sumptuous lemon cheesecake which she likened to a legendary chiffon pie save for a Greg Wallace-type buttery biscuit base. Though I often pass on pudding the chocolate torte proved irresistible – as good an argument as any for having desserts on display. Long live the trolley say I!
We drank a benchmark Australian chardonnay from Moondarra (�16.45) from a populist and affordable wine list strong on fruit-driven New World varieties. All in all, cooking in suburban hotel restaurants doesn’t get much better than this.
Riverhill Hotel & Restaurant, Talbot Road, Oxton, Birkenhead CH43 2HJ. Tel: 0151 653 3773; www.theriverhill.co.uk