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Reviews: Marina O'Loughlin finds Mark Birchall at the peak of his powers at Moor Hall, while Tom Parker Bowles finds perfection at Flora at Joy

07 September 2020

Marina O'Loughlin of The Sunday Times finds Mark Birchall at the peak of his powers at Moor Hall in Lancashire

So far I've steered clear of the rarefied world of "fine dining", twitchy at the idea of expensive luxury in today's climate. But the questions bear asking: are we going to turn our backs on Messrs Michelin to espouse a new Jerusalem of the worthy and deserving? Or will our snouts be back at the trough as soon as our trotters can carry us there? I'm here at Moor Hall, a temple to haute cuisine a few miles from Liverpool, a place dripping with awards, to get a taste of high-end Covid-era gastronomy. Oink.

A few highlights, a handful of tastes from what turns out to be an unforgettable dinner: tartare of raw mackerel with tiny frozen beads – like Dippin' Dots for grown-ups – flooding the sweet astringency of redcurrant over freshest sushi-quality fish, rose and cornflowers for colour and fragrance, mandolined radishes for texture. It's a tiny slap in the taste buds. Or a single Louët-Feisser oyster, the aristocratic shellfish all plushy silkiness, just-poached so the flesh firms up a little, bathed in a buttermilk sauce, dill oil poured elegantly on top. Just when you think it might be a bit much on the silky front, you bite into the porky chew of scorched lardo and the crunch of toasted quinoa. Intoxicating. There's a startlingly good dish of turnip and crab. I don't adore turnip, so if you'd told me I'd be scraping the bowl for the last of the anise-scented (from hyssop) turnip broth bathing translucent brown crabmeat dumplings, white clawmeat and tendrils of cured white turnip, I'd have laughed. But I do.

Chef-patron Mark Birchall is at the height of his powers: ex-head chef of L'Enclume in Cumbria. You can read that lineage if you're as much of a nerd as I am. (There's a super-smoky Holstein Friesian beef tartare with mustard, beetroot and shallots that's very Simon Rogan. Or was it always, in fact, Birchall?) Honestly, though, I think this is better.

So I'm happy to confirm that here (for the moment at least), not only is the industry's high end soldiering on, it's thriving, the seven bedrooms at full occupancy, the dining room booked out nightly.

Price: £155 per person for the tasting menu

Moor Hall
Moor Hall

Tom Parker Bowles of The Mail on Sunday finds every detail is just right at Flora at Joy in West London...

It's been a while since I first sat on this concrete terrace. A decade, to be precise, back when the space was known as Dock Kitchen and chef Stevie Parle was the new winner of the 2010 Young Chef of the Year. How times have changed.

These days, Parle is more seasoned veteran than fresh talent, but with a slew of loved restaurants under his belt, his return to Portobello Dock with Flora at the pop-up Joy is a rare glimmer of, well, joyous, news.

‘Hyper seasonal' food, says the menu, hyper fresh too, as we crunch through a plate of vegetables – cucumber, tomatoes, Romesco pepper, peppery radishes – that holler with late summer vitality, all dragged through a softly saline slick of smoked cod's roe.

There's a chicken salad, with bounteous chunks of succulent meat, and pert leaves slicked with a sharp dressing, and shards of crisp fried bread, simple, yet joyous. As the sun beats down, we swig ice-cold rosé, and dig into clams with sweet slivers of guanciale. The juices are so good that I slurp them from the bowl.

Welsh lobster is charred from the grill, but its centre just undercooked, so you still taste that swish of ozone, like waves crashing on the rocks. Lardo, melted into the flesh, that adds the most subtle of savoury whispers. It reminds me how good this thuggish crustacean can be.

Every detail is just right, from the warmest of service, to the sheer brilliance of the ingredients and cooking. It takes hard work, and talent, to make things seem so effortless. This place makes me very happy. Joy indeed.

Price: about £30 a head

Flora at Joy
Flora at Joy

... while Grace Dent is equally impressed with Stevie Parle's cooking at Flora at Joy

Flora offers imaginative, assertive Mediterranean cooking to be shared or gobbled up separately – fans of one of Parle's previous restaurants, Sardine, which announced its permanent closure over lockdown, will not be disappointed.

Plentiful slabs of moist Loughton Farm chicken breast, stuffed with ricotta and cooked over wood, came on juice-soaked sourdough toast. A plate of rare wood-grilled beef came courtesy of the award-winning Duncan Anderson's Hole Street Farm in Kingsdown, Kent. "Lockdown lobster" with lardo and rosemary butter arrived with a story about an industrious lobster fisherman who, as the restaurant world shut up shop, began selling his wares via Twitter.

Vegans and vegetarians will do well here: grilled courgette with green wheat, roast tomato and tahini was marvellous, and you really must order the fresh, earthy borlotti beans; there are also vegan "meat" balls with judicious inverted commas, plus a lush, Kentish tomato salad with basil, and glorious new potatoes served with smoked butter.

The chocolate cake is a dark, rich slab of twice-cooked deliciousness served with fresh raspberries and crème fraîche. They tend always to have a fruit pie on the go, too. Actual happiness is slim on the ground out there right now, but there is joy in Portobello.

Price: About £40 a head for three courses, plus drinks and service

Flora at Joy
Flora at Joy

The Observer's Jay Rayner is four years late to the Smokestak party in London's Shoreditch, but intends to make up for lost time

At the heart of the operation is a very large smoker, of the sort you could you use to dispose of a body. It scents both the air and the food. A starter of crispy ox cheek with anchovy mayo brings four sizeable squared-off croquettes of beef that have been slow-cooked until a thrilling tangle of ripe, smoky fibres, before being breadcrumbed and deep-fried. They arrive white-flecked with crystals of salt against the dark brown. On the side is that mayo, to add an extra burst of salt and acidity. It's a powerful and dramatic plateful for £6.50.

The smoker gets involved in cooking most things, including a sprightly salsa made with charred sweetcorn. It comes with golden triangles of hand-pressed, slightly oily and salty corn tortilla.

That famed brisket bun is on the menu, alongside a pulled-pork bun. You can also get both of the fillings by themselves, alongside other meats by 200g weights. The charred pork belly rib, served with pickled cucumber and red chilli, is sliced up and then reassembled into a whole, so it feels like you're dismantling it. The crisped, sauced, charred surface gives way to a thin layer of fat on the verge of melting away, and then the soft meat below. The 30-day-aged beef short rib is a more solid and hefty version.

Price: small plates, £4.50-£9.50; big plates, £8.50-£17.50; desserts, £3.50-£7; wines, from £27

Smokestak
Smokestak

William Sitwell of The Daily Telegraph enjoys lunch in a train in Station Kitchen in Dorset

Fortunately the owners of the Station Kitchen – front of house Ross and chef Claire, who also run a catering business called Sausage & Pear – take inspiration not from old British Rail menus, but from the produce of the Dorset coast. And they serve it in a train carriage decorated with furniture and trinkets no doubt collected on trips to auction houses and antiques markets.

A decent bottle of Picpoul de Pinet arrived with a pair of cheesy scones, which was a cute treat. I started with scallops from Lyme Bay, without much trace of the promised ‘crispy Serrano ham', but they were well cooked and came with a tart, chunky and nicely oily sauce vierge topped with pea shoots. My wife Emily relished her heirloom tomato salad with feta, loving the crunch of pistachio nuts and honeyed dressing.

I had a whole Cornish megrim sole, a deepwater flat fish more meaty in flavour than its posh Dover cousin. It came with a chunky tower of crushed potatoes, which could have enjoyed a little more seasoning, but the fish was cooked beautifully.

Emily worked her way through half a lobster, pleased with every morsel. I tasted her fat, triple-cooked truffle and Parmesan chips, but could detect little sign of either the thrice-fry or the precious funghi and cheese.

The Station Kitchen is a happy place, with great service, and is a breath of fresh air, being devoid of screens or masks or temperature testing.

Price: £90 for dinner for two, excluding drinks and service

*London Evening Standard's Fay Maschler visits Stanley's in London's Chelsea and finds edible flowers and "carefully constructed cocktails"**

There is a theory that people who live in Chelsea never eat outside the borough. They just, you know, can't. Fortunately for them, Hugh Stanley, nephew of the Earl of Derby and scion of the horse-racing family, opens a restaurant this summer with a large terrace that allows a safe space for social distancing –should someone from another borough wander in.

Chef at Stanley's is Olivia Burt, a MasterChef: The Professionals finalist and, perhaps more meaningfully, also a Roux Scholarship finalist. A previous post was at Simon Rogan's Fera at Claridge's. The liberal use of edible flowers could be attributed to that. They decorate a first course of beef tartare also garnished with blobs of smoked egg yolk, which add a pleasing unctuous quality, but seasoning is wan.

With only three choices in each course it seems perverse to offer Dexter beef as a main-course option. We share roasted halibut with ribbons of yellow courgette, lemon verbena and more flowers. The side dish of "warm summer greens" turns out disappointingly to be a small bowl of sugar snap peas.

The bar is an important part of Stanley's, and easy-going all-day hours accommodate the flâneur that a sunny day brings out in most of us. Cocktails are carefully constructed, Coates & Seely English sparkling wines delight and the involvement of Lea & Sandeman informs a tempting wine list.

Price: about £40 a head

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