Until this week, I had only dined at three Michelin-starred restaurants. I don't say "only" out of some over-inflated sense of privilege, but because for someone whose whole life revolves around food I think this is on the low side, particularly as one of those experiences was an ill-fated first date at Altrincham's Juniper around the turn of the millennium and is definitely best forgotten. For one thing, Michelin-starred dining doesn't come cheap; it's largely beyond my budget, and doesn't always seem to me to warrant the additional money when there is so much good stuff around for less. And for another, as we all know, Manchester doesn't have a Michelin star, and thus we need to affect nonchalance and pretend we don't care for all that nonsense anyway.
Thus today's post strains the limits of being a thing to do in Manchester, for we're off to Birkenhead to sample Marc Wilkinson's Fraiche. This tiny restaurant - just eight covers - has been widely recommended to me by many people whose opinion I trust; it's a real labour of love for Marc, who still does pretty much everything himself, and who has held that coveted star for nine years running. It's easy to see why; service is exceptional from the moment you walk through the door, the attention to detail is astonishing (see the music and fragrance lists below), and the spiced pecan nuts that we delicately fight over whilst drinking a bespoke gin and tonic made by the terribly knowledgeable Tom set the tone for the largely excellent food that follows (with one or two caveats). Our table of four all has the £85 tasting menu with the "salt" rather than "sweet" option (despite what you see on the menu below), which essentially means you get cheese rather than dessert; three of us also have the splendid wine matching at £45 a head (well - in for a penny, in for a pound).
All of this is largely successful. None of us is that keen on our pre-cheese course of figs and feta, which features a green granita that renders the dish rather watery, and I don't enjoy the rhubarb crudite or the fizzy grapes, although everyone else loves them and I think it's just the texture I don't care for. Standout courses include the duck (the nicest I've ever had), the turbot, the carrot starter and the extraordinary "blue cheese and cabbage", a dainty little dish of frozen cheese that proves beyond doubt that cheese ice cream should be a thing. And the cheese course itself is spectacular - five well-chosen examples of full-flavoured cheeses, each served with its own specially-made accompaniment. There is also a petits fours trolley, a contraption of unspeakable excitement from which we are each allowed to choose five things (fennel shortbread the star for me). All in all, I have a memorable evening - great company and generally exceptional, unshowy cooking that doesn't require you to go for an emergency burger to fill yourself up afterwards (as was the case at a previous Michelin-starred experience). And where else gives you a bag of muesli to take home so - in their words - you can think of them at breakfast the next day? As if I've thought of anything else since.
- Fraiche is at 11 Rose Mount, Birkenhead, Prenton CH43 5SG; successful booking requires persistence, luck or a clever friend who is quick off the mark when the reservations are opened every month.