Restaurant review - The Chef’s Table, Chester

The Chefs Table, Music Hall Passage, Chester

The Chefs Table, Music Hall Passage, Chester - Credit: Archant

An exceptional Chester eaterie is tucked away down a back alley. Seek it out, but make sure your book first

Chef's Table

Chef's Table - Credit: Archant

As is to be expected in any major tourist spot, Chester is virtually wall-to-wall with branches of nationally familiar restaurant chains. Almost all of the big operators have a highly visible presence in the city centre. Out in the historic streets and among the unique ‘Rows’ one can only be in Chester. Inside one of the big brand restaurants, one could be anywhere.

By contrast, some of the city’s most exciting and rewarding gastronomic experiences tend to be independent restaurants tucked away from the tourist areas (apart, that is, from the Grosvenor, which is a special case). The acclaimed Joseph Benjamin, for example, and its sister tapas restaurant Porta are situated at the ‘wrong’ end of Northgate Street close to the city wall, and the award-winning Sticky Walnut occupies a modest terrace in a side street across the tracks in Hoole.

To these hidden gems should now be added the Chef’s Table, invisible from the bustle of Northgate Street and St Werburgh Street by the cathedral, but accessed by the obscure back alley that connects the two. Since the Chef’s Table’s launch in April last year, however, Music Hall Passage has become a magnet for in-the-know foodies. Recently, based on 340,000 reviews written by diners who use the national booking agency/guide Open Table, The Chef’s Table was placed third in their national Top 100 Restaurants, above the Fat Duck and Hibiscus.

It was a freezing cold mid-week lunchtime when we called to investigate and it was a good job we had booked for there wasn’t a table to be had and people were being politely turned away, so I make no claims for having ‘discovered’ this exceptional place. The restaurant itself is a small unprepossessing space with unclad wooden tables and rustic chairs. Behind the brick bar, stacked with artisan bread, chef-partner Liam McKay, formerly of the Grosvenor, Joseph Benjamin and Upstairs at the Grill leads his small brigade working away in the small open kitchen. McKay and co-owner Tom Hughes set out their stall with a dedication to locality and season, which is evident not only by a constantly changing menu reflecting the best of available ingredients, but also the exhibition of works by up-and-coming local artists that adorn the walls. The sale of second-hand cookery books adds to a homely and welcoming atmosphere.

But it’s the food that takes centre stage and though at lunchtime the menu (offered alongside an all-day brunch) is limited - a choice from just three starters, mains and desserts taken from the longer dinner menu - quality is outstanding and value for money verges on the astonishing; two courses for £15 and £18 for three. I began with ‘Game’ - a warm terrine of pheasant, mallard and pigeon accompanied by quince, chutney, pickled vegetables and blackberries, all delightfully presented. The terrine itself was loosely bound, chunky and quite delicious and the sweet and sour accoutrements entirely complementary. Mrs K opened with ‘Beetroot’, a fabulously colourful mélange of cubed roast beetroot, rhubarb, the flesh and juice of blood orange, pickled radish, home-made goat’s curd and toasted coconut whose flavours sang in perfect harmony.

For the main course I had roast megrim sole with cumin roast cauliflower, cauliflower cream, warm salad of lentils and barley, raisins, curried granola and curry oil. Cornish megrim sole is supposedly inferior in taste and texture to its Dover and lemon sole cousins, but chef McKay delivered a superb and complex fish dish, moist and favoursome, with a truly inspired roster of accompaniments. Mrs K’s main, dubbed merely as ‘Chicken’ offered another sublimely innovative plate. The chicken breast was roasted, moist and delicious but it was the pairing with tomato, saffron, paprika, smoked cous cous, olive caramel, red pepper, aioli and ham and cheese croquettes that made this a stand out dish. A multitude of ingredients, yes, but not one of them out of place. A side of exemplary triple cooked chips added £3.50.

Desserts were wonderfully inventive too. I had caramelised banana with madras dulce de leche, aerated chocolate, chocolate sorbet and scattered salted caramel popcorn; a sensational combination of flavours and textures. Mrs K chose excellent oozy hot chocolate fondant with blood orange sorbet - a marriage made in heaven - and honeycomb. The wine list is short but full of interest and yielded a tip-top Vermentino, usually associated with Sicily but in this case produced in France’s Languedoc region, for £18.50. Service was friendly, knowledgeable and attentive throughout.

The Chef’s Table, Music Hall Passage, Chester CH1 2EU. Tel: 01244 403040.

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