Matt Worswick's Warehouse is all about casual dining, but it makes no compromises on quality, as Hannah Thompson finds when she ventures to genteel, tucked-away Southport
Other chefs with that kind of track record might long for the bright stars of London's dining scene. Not so for Acorn Award winner Worswick. The Warehouse, which he took over in March, is a deliberate and long-awaited move.
Backed by Liverpool FC footballer Steven Gerrard, the 120-cover site was actually bought and first opened in 1995 by restaurateur and hotelier Paul Adams, whose head chef at the neighbouring Vincent hotel was Worswick's boss at St Martins.
But now, Worswick has given the menu a bold, yet creative update. Although Adams plays a key role in the business side - looking at what sells and what doesn't - the menu is as focused on the chef's highly trained background as it is on the demands of Southport's varied clientele.
Even a simple starter is no careless affair. The ham hock ravioli with broad bean soup (£6.95) is presented as a delicate pasta parcel in a velvety soup, studded with beans and drizzled olive oil. Because while the customers in Southport might not be expecting Michelin quality - or prices - that doesn't mean compromising on flavour, presentation or techniques.
"I don't bang it out," says Worswick. "The overriding element is simplicity, but I would still prepare it in the same way as I did at Glenapp."
Similarly, while prices may be cheaper than your average Michelin-starred joint, they are by no means insignificant: average spend per head is around £40. But Worswick has found that customers are happy to pay so long as it's what they want.
"We're not trying to be too clever," he says. "We just want to make food that people want to eat."
Overall, Worswick's menu is based on the principle of using a few ingredients, done well. The techniques involved are far more intricate than the actual elements on the plate, in a bid for simplicity and consistency.
"I'd rather put the complication into the processes than the ingredients," he says. "Good food will always shine through."
The ham hock terrine (part of the £15 two-course set menu) is one such example. The chicken is braised at 75 degrees for 30 minutes before being added to ham hock stock and rolled into a ballotine. It also has fresh ginger for heat, and pickled gooseberries with white wine and vinegar - just sour enough to cut through the chicken. And yet, the end plate is straightforward.
"It is a simple plate," explains Worswick. "But the thought process behind it and the execution should be as faultless as possible."
The strong flavours are as much a nod to the chef's own tastes as to the new clientele's demands. For example, the Chateaubriand for two (£65) is on the menu because Worswick loves it, and the wasabi mayo with beef tartare (£8.95) is featured because it's big and different, yet still accessible.
"I've chosen wasabi because it's a stronger, more abundant flavour than horseradish. But people can recognise the flavour combination, even if they've never had it before."
Of course, some dishes still have unmistakeably higher-end touches, such as confit garlic, honey-, oil- and butter-baked celeriac, semi-set gelatine, oyster emulsion and meat protein glue.
In the case of the tartare, the beef is diced and frozen before being mixed with whole-grain mustard, onion, thyme and capers. It is marinated for two days and then served with deep-fried garlic chips and an egg yolk cooked at 62 degrees for two hours.
Unsurprisingly, for someone who worked under David Everitt-Matthias, sourcing is just as key as the cooking, and the menu changes regularly depending on what looks good.
"I try to keep things as British as possible," he says. "We've got amazing produce. The beef, the chicken, the pollock, the sea bream - British fish is some of the best in the world."
And yet, creating a menu for customers who might otherwise have been happy with standard cod and chips hasn't always been easy, Worswick admits. People wanted bigger portions than he expected, and certain dishes were initially difficult to sell.
Indeed, this isn't a total departure from high-end food. Perhaps surprisingly, the Warehouse also offers a tasting menu for large numbers, appreciating that demand still exists for celebratory, more creative experiences.
"The tasting menu is a way for us to champion ingredients," he says. "We can show off our skill and great produce a bit more for people who want it."
And while Worswick didn't take over the site with stars in his eyes, should the guides come, he is open to them, as preoccupied by consistency as he is with quality.
"If Michelin were here, then hopefully they'd enjoy it. The food is hearty, but not slapdash. I couldn't have got that far in Michelin-starred restaurants if I did that. I'm still the same chef. But we're not on the King's Road in Chelsea. We're just trying to be a thriving, consistent neighbourhood restaurant."
This is, after all, a casual menu built on the foundations of unmistakeably high-end cooking. "We are just a brasserie," says Worswick. "But I would hope that we're a very good one."
From the menu
Starters Poached hen's egg, asparagus, Parma ham £7.50
Cod carpaccio, sesame purée, soy vinaigrette £8.95
Mains Sea bream, salt and pepper squid, chorizo, samphire £16.95
Roast chicken breast, sweetcorn, crispy leg beignet, fondant potato £14.95
Desserts Vanilla poached cherries, yogurt sorbet £7.95
Chocolate délice, burnt milk ice-cream £7.95