Marc Wilkinson has created his 16-seat restaurant, Fraiche, as a labour of love. As Janet Harmer found out, eating there is a unique experience
Marc Wilkinson is an obsessed man. He has created Fraiche, his 16-seat restaurant in the village of Oxton on the Wirral, as a labour of love. Everything about the look of the place, situated in a 1850s terraced house, is down to him. He gutted it himself, built walls and laid floors, before designing and decorating it with little outside help.
And since opening Fraiche in 2004, Wilkinson has ploughed a sole furrow in the kitchen, supported by just two members of staff out front. The plaudits have followed - Fraiche achieved a Michelin star in 2009 - but the financial rewards have been minimal.
"We average eight to 10 customers a night," explains Wilkinson, who was previously head chef at Pennyhill Park in Bagshot, Surrey. "Commercially, it is not really viable. I only survive because I don't take a salary, live on the premises and am very careful with my spending."
Eating at Fraiche is, therefore, all about living Wilkinson's passion. From the elegant, calming decor - which is enlivened with striking pieces of glass art by Liverpool artist Jenny Barker - to the succession of extraordinary flavours that come your way, eating here is a unique experience.
Open from Wednesday to Sunday for dinner and Friday and Saturday lunch, the restaurant offers four set menus. At dinner, customers select one of three: Elements at £45 for three to four courses, Signature (six-course tasting menu for £55) or Bespoke (some 17 or 18 "flavour hits" costing £65). The choice at lunch is either the Signature or lunch menu (two courses for £20, three courses for £26.50).
Building upon his classical French training, Wilkinson aims to extract the maximum flavour out of every ingredient on the plate. He tries to keep dishes simple and understated. Lack of support in the kitchen means he cannot be intricate.
Inspired partly by pilgrimages to some of the world's leading restaurants and partly by his own determination to create something different, Wilkinson keeps the diner amused with a series of surprising and often playful dishes.
A recent Bespoke menu offered a selection of amuse bouche-sized dishes to start, which were not always what they at first seemed. So after the innocent-looking spicy roasted pecans and smoking olives, we were served a seaweed burger composed of a seaweed meringue with compressed cucumber and oyster, followed by what looked like a pebble but was, in fact, a new potato covered in "edible clay" flavoured with rosemary and accompanied by a mushroom "toothpaste".
Then came a chorizo sandwich (chorizo jelly on toasted bread with tomato powder and sorrel leaves), Parmesan ice-cream lollipop, and a five-a-day soda made from passion fruit, orange, pomegranate, pineapple and coconut.
The portion sizes then started to become a little - not much - more substantial. Seared scallops were served with a kohlrabi purée and "coal" made from sourdough bread soaked in a liquid of black olives and dehydrated.
The top two dishes for me were the red mullet, fennel and date purée with a smidgeon of wild rice providing some crunch, followed by Loire quail with potato gnocchi, elderflower stock, parsley root purée, baby leek and girolle mushrooms.
Then, just as your taste buds begin to flag, the menu moves on to a succession of "desserts", starting with a tiny bowl of fizzy grapes (achieved by injecting carbon dioxide into the fruit) which provides an acidic hit as well as being cleansing and fun.
To follow come a couple of spoonfuls - one of lemon meringue, then one of apple pie. And then it's on to the home straight with a shot glass of lemon grass panna cotta topped with sour cherry, mango crumble and tamarind sorbet, pistachio cake with yogurt sorbet and, to finish, a bite-sized nugget of chocolate "Aero" decorated with gold leaf.
The Bespoke menu is a marathon but, surprisingly, it is not one that overwhelms the diner - probably due to the fact that Wilkinson uses barely any alcohol, butter or cream in his cooking.
Wilkinson knows he is going to have to address the commerciality of the restaurant. Hence, he is now looking at an additional venture - maybe something focused on pastry - that does make money.
SAMPLE DISHES FROM THE MENU Signature menu, £55
â- Bonbon of sweetbreads, smoked olive, apple textures
â- Sea bass fillet, aubergine yogurt, verjus
â- Loin of Herdwick lamb, fondant potato, chervil cream
â- Lemon grass panna cotta
â- Sweet or savoury finish