Aaah. The sweet taste of luxury. As the vaccine is rolled out, restaurateurs can look forward to a better year in 2021 than they endured in 2020. Eating out has changed for good, however, and the emergence of at-home boxes has given hospitality a shot in the arm. It’s also given diners the opportunity to enjoy excellence from the comfort of their own living room.
Restaurants that might previously have been out of reach for many, either on the basis of cost or geography, are now within the ambit of a new wave of customers.
Without leaving the region, it’s possible to tick off far-flung restaurants that feature prominently in the Michelin Guide, that have enviable reputations or whose chefs are regulars on TV.
It’s Executive Chef is Lisa Goodwin-Allen, who took the reins at Northcote in 2017 when her predecessor, Nigel Haworth, stepped back to take up an ambassadorial role.
She had worked at the venue since 2001, having joined at the age of 20.
Goodwin-Allen is a regular on TV, she memorably featured on Great British Menu Christmas, and is passionate about using seasonal and locally sourced ingredients to incorporate her Lancashire roots into creative dishes.
She says: “I am ambitious and here at Northcote, my goals have always been respected, that’s why I have stayed.
“Nigel and I have worked together on creating menus and dishes for a long time, the food will continue in a similar style, but there will be changes and I am excited about where I will be taking the menus.
“I like food to be very visual, very elegant and packed with great flavours. It must taste of what you see. Food is very emotive and I love re-visiting some of the classics.”
The classics feature strongly in the Northcote box. In a market place that is becoming increasingly busy and increasingly good, theirs is a stand-out offer, for this critic’s shilling, arguably the best available.
Ordering, delivery and communication is as good as it ought to be from all home delivery operations, with a system that is efficient and poses no problems. Which means attention can turn to the point of all this: the food.
Our Northcote At Home Gourmet Box for Two came complete with easy-to-follow instructions. And while I’m no slouch in the kitchen, the instructions were sufficiently helpful and clear to teach me a thing or two.
More of which later – though thank you, Ms Goodwin-Allen, for sending out a virtual masterclass.
With Northcote, you get a free cooking lesson as well as great nosh.
We started with Northcote Cheese Loaf, a regular in the restaurant itself, which was served with butter. Popped into the oven to heat through for six minutes, it was fabulous. Strong-tasting and with a delightful, soft, lightly aerated texture, it made for a magnificent start.
Next up was a true taste of winter. A caramelised celeriac consommé was served with tiny raviolis, celeriac pearls and tarragon.
It was exceptional; a dish easy to replicate at home and where the hard work had been done by Goodwin-Allen’s team. The flavours were immaculate.
In an era where there’s an increasing drift away from such classics as consommé, as chefs focus on dashis and Asian flavours, her warming celeriac dish was a hug in a bowl.
The tiny ravioli were intricate and perfectly al dente. The aromatic tarragon was perfect seasoning.
Next up was a delicious cod dish. Two fillets of North Sea cod were served with a thrillingly subtle curry.
Pomegranate added sweetness and winter colour, almond provided texture and creamy overtones to balance the curry while coriander finished the dish with a fragrant flourish.
The cod was cooked gently, at 120C for 10 minutes, so that it was just translucent and perfectly delicate.
There’s much to be said for going a little under, rather than over, on a great piece of fish and we deluded ourselves that Goodwin-Allen might be ever-so-slightly impressed with our cooking.
And if not, at least we were. The chef’s harmonious balance of flavours was exquisite and the dish was a true stand-out.
The main was a showstopper.
A roast chicken had been stuffed with a truffle and brioche filling while a leg Bolognese, wild mushrooms and Lyonnaise potato completed an elegant and flavoursome plate of food.
The instructions told us to cook the chicken for an hour and 20 at 120C.
We did. It’s the best chicken I’ve cooked.
Most cooks know that a seven-hour shoulder of lamb at 120C is better than a fillet cooked at 180C for 15 minutes.
Few, however, apply those rules to chicken.
A part of me will forever be in Goodwin-Allen’s debt, for I’ve never before enjoyed chicken so succulent and tender; either in a restaurant or at home.
The truffle added wintery earthiness, the leg Bolognese was robust and delivered in spades while the Lyonnaise potato was indulgent and luxuriant. It really was a faultless plate.
Having eaten other Michelin at-home chicken dishes over the past 12 months, nothing came close.
Desserts were as pretty as a picture. An orchard apple cheesecake was shaped like an apple, hiding a gossamer-light mousse-like cheesecake within.
We forgot to add the salted caramel sauce; I suspect too much excitement and too much good food had made it somehow unimportant.
Eaten later, in a different setting, it was spectacularly good.
A small box of Northcote chocolates finished proceedings, with their version of smoked toffee, After Eight and Ferrero Rocher wrapping things up in style. Had it been served on the Strictly Xmas Special, the judges would have awarded 10-10-10.
The marks for Northcote are the easiest part. There is no credible mark other than a 10/10.
The Northcote box doesn’t just taste good, it also teaches you how to cook better.
Winner winner chicken dinner.